Norm Bishop on wolves and the northern range elk population-

Bishop, below responded to Montana State Sen. Joe Balyeat who has proposed legislation cut off relations between Montana and the federal government on wolves.
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Sen. Joe Balyeat [Bozeman Chronicle Dec. 30] proposes legislation to sever Montana’s ties with federal agencies on wolf management. He fears that allowing the wolf population to keep growing will doom the northern Yellowstone elk population, and elk throughout the state (where elk populations are 14% over goal).

Montana wolves increased to 394 in 2007, but the mid-year 2008 estimate is down 9%, to 360. Northern Yellowstone’s wolf population is down 21% 35% from 81 in 2007 to 64 53 in 2008. As the density of wolves increased in past years, interpack killing joined disease as a limiting factor.

Sen. Balyeat’s rationale for his bill appears to be based on a one-time count he made of the ratio of calves to cows of the northern Yellowstone elk herd. From dozens of peer-reviewed journal articles on the effects of restored gray wolves on their prey in Yellowstone, we can pick two to enlighten us on these complex issues.

Vucetich et.al. (2005. Influence of harvest, climate, and wolf predation on Yellowstone elk 1961-2004. OIKOS 111:259-270) studied the contribution of wolf predation in a decline of elk from 17,000 to 8,000. They built and assessed models based on elk-related data prior to wolf reintroduction (1961-1995), and used them to predict how the elk population might have fared from 1995 to 2004 had wolves not been restored. Climate and hunter harvest explained most of the elk decline. From 1995 to 2004 wolves killed mostly elk that would have died from other causes.

Wright et al. (2006. Selection of Northern Yellowstone Elk by Gray Wolves and Hunters JWM 70(4):1070-1078), documented that hunting exerted a greater total reproductive impact on the herd than wolf predation. The article’s authors were university, federal, and state wildlife biologists working cooperatively. No legislation is needed to improve on that.

Norman A. Bishop
Bozeman, MT

Note: Bishop was a leader and supporter of wolf restoration interpretation in Yellowstone.
He has received numerous awards for his Park Service work with wolves. Among other
organizations, he is a director of the Wolf Recovery Foundation.