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APRIL 1, 2010

Guest Editorial: Decline of elk and elk depredation by wolves

By Gene Eastman

   There are several factors that have contributed to the elk population crash. There has been a steady decline from the early 1950’s due to a loss of habitat. Large wildfires in the early 1900’s created hundreds of thousands of acres of prime elk winter range by changing the vegetation from conifers to shrub-fields. The result was a large increase in elk that peaked in the mid 1900’s.

    Since the 1950’s the elk has been declining for several reasons. A primary one being the decrease in caring capacity brought about by plant successional changes from shrubs to conifer trees. Through the 1980’s the cows were still producing enough calves to maintain a healthy herd of 25 plus calves per 100 cows. The harvest in the 1970s averaged 1200 elk for Unit 10 of the Lolo Zone, (About 600 bulls and 600 cows). Then the Fish and Game Department went to bulls only in 1976 with a modest cow permit harvest.

    By hunting bulls only during the open season, the harvest switched from 600 cows and 600 bulls to about 1200 bulls being harvested in Unit 10. The bull cow ratio dropped every year from around 50 bulls per 100 cows to around nine bulls per hundred cows by 1993 for this unit. The reduction in bulls allowed for more browse being available to the cows and calves. The elk herd in the Lolo zone (Units 10 and 12) increased. The elk numbers from 1976 to the 80s increased to around 16,000 elk. From the 1980’s peak the elk numbers declined along with a decline in calf production.

   The 2008 census for the Lolo zone was 5112 elk which declined to 2,178 elk by 2010. At this rate of more than a 50 percent reduction we can expect the 2112 count to be around 1000 elk or if the loss is another 2934 elk then the count will be zero minus; its anybodies guess.

   The second reason for elk decline is a decline in cow numbers and the loss of calf production due to predation. A healthy herd can withstand bear and cougar predation. A stressed elk heard can be impacted by predation. Add a “non-essential” non-native pack-hunting extra large “buffalo wolf” from the Woods Buffalo Range in northern Alberta, then the decline in elk numbers can be rapid.

   The small wolf I call the “native Idaho wolf” started showing up in 1976 after the 1080 poisoning program was halted. About the same year I saw the first set of wolf tracks on the North Fork river road. Bear hunters started seeing a pair of wolves in the late 70s in upper Kelly Creek. In the 1980s wolf sighting increased with wolves being seen near Woodland, around Pierce, Weippe and in the back country. Most sightings were singles or pairs.

   A local hound hunter reported a pack of wolves (1980s) near Smith Ridge. I witnessed them howling in 1992. A grey and black wolf pair was seen by many folks around Weippe in the fields in the late 80s. I was able to video the black wolf on the Weippe Prairie hunting mice. Much of this information gathered on sightings and documented wolf tracks was shared with the Federal Fish and Wildlife and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The wolf video was also sent to the Federal Fish and Wildlife. The smaller “Idaho wolf” was not creating a problem with the public, wildlife or domestic stock.

   After the wolf introduction program was implemented a federal wolf biologist told me that there is no difference in sizes of wolves, all are Canis lupus species. However the rule of body size is “further north, the bigger the body” of animals such as the Alaska moose compared to the Idaho moose. Same for wolves: the re-introduced red wolf and the Mexican wolf are much smaller than the “Idaho native wolf” which in turn is smaller than the Alberta “buffalo wolf”. It is a matter of a larger body mass retaining more heat in a colder climate.

   So we had documented wolves and breeding pairs, why was the non-native “non-essential” much larger pack wolf introduced? What went wrong? What were the Governor and the Direction of the Fish and Game thinking about? Now we have a problem. Personally I liked the small Idaho timber wolf and enjoyed seeing the black wolf hunt mice near my ranch. Since 2000 the Lolo Creek “buffalo wolf” pack has made regular visits to my ranch and leave their tape worm Echinococcus granulosus infested droppings topped with whitetail deer rump hair along the driveway. The latest visit was a month ago at 10 am, fifteen feet from the front door. His track measured 5 ˝ inches by 6˝ inches. Meeting this large predator at the front door close-up is a fearsome and a chilling experience. I have faced a charging grizzly bear in Alaska, and I can tell you that when the yellow eyes of a 100 pound plus wolf stare at you from a few feet away, it is like facing a charging bear; maybe worse, a bear doesn’t look you in the eye.

   Another change from the “Idaho Wolf” is the sightings are frequently wolf packs of eight to 12 wolves especially along the Lolo Motor Road where dried wolf scat can be seen in abundance. Perhaps four-wheeling could be hazardous by inhaling airborne tapeworm spores? I wish some folks in the city that are much kinder to this large predator could experience them as we country folks do. I am sure that they would love their children, dogs, horses, cats (cows, sheep, goats and chickens) the same as us.

What problems do wolves pose to man and animals?

   The following are quotes from Wolves in Russia, Anxiety Through the Ages, by Will N. Graves, Detselig Enterprises, LTD, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 2007.

   Wolf-human encounters: “In the late 1990s wolves in Russia were still terrorizing villages and occasionally killing humans. The most famous man-easting wolves lived in the region of Turku 1880-81 where they killed 22 children. They (wolves) were an old female and a young male.

   Wolf-wildlife encounters in Russia: “All of my Research indicates that wolves kill wantonly in heavy snow and in periods of crusted snow. Wolves do much damage to the hunting economy in every part of the USSR and to the northern livestock industry. A Soviet wildlife specialist wrote in 1975 that people who write articles that state that wolves cull (kill) only sick and weak animals are writing fantasy. He stated that wolves often kill healthy elk, deer and other animals. Caucaus Wildlife Preserve: 20 wolves in 1966 increased to 300 wolves by 1972 and the number of red deer and wild boar decreased to one seventh of their former abundance.”

Parasites and Diseases:

   “Soviet research indicated that wolves carry over 50 types of parasites. Wolves help establish maintain and spread so-called hot spots’ of viral diseases. Some are potentially fatal to humans including rabies. Wolves are the main carriers of dangerous helminthes (parasitic worms) spreading echinococcosis, cysticercosis, coenurosis, thrichinosis and ascariasis.

   In the Nenetskiz Automomous Okrug, all wolves examined were severely infected with tapeworms. The tiny eggs of these tapeworms pass out of the feces sometimes stick to berries and mushrooms gathered by people. Once inside a person these tapeworm eggs cause large cysts in the liver, the lungs, and occasionally the brain. Stepping on dried feces can cause a person to inhale the airborne spores or eggs. The eggs of parasites are picked up on grass by grazing animals. In one day the wolf can travel many kilometers and can quickly spread anthrax and the foot and mouth disease and they are immune to these diseases. The wolves are able to spread infections of tsustitserkoz and echinococcus to cattle.”

   Wolf population rate of increase: “Under usual circumstances wolf populations will increase from about 10% to as high as perhaps 30 percent in a given year. During the approximate 70 year period of the USSR more than 1,5000,000 wolves were culled (killed) and many times their population was greatly reduced. Nevertheless, the number of wolves in the Russian federation countries is greater now than at the beginning of the century. Wolves are resilient and have a high reproductive rate. There were 22,500 wolves in the Russian Federation in 1990. A ban on hunting was imposed in 1991 and the wolf population grew to 44,500 in 2001.”

   I am not implying that wolves in America will cause the same human mortality problems as they have in Russia as long as we can hunt them. However our introduced wolves show no fear of man at this time. Hound hunters, deer and elk hunters, horseman, cattlemen, sheep men and citizens have had very threatening close encounters where they witnessed their horses, cattle, sheep and dogs being threatened or killed by wolves. Archers have told me of being faced by a pack of wolves boldly coming towards them.

   Some of the transplanted wolves may have come from ranch lands in Alberta. A retired local Idaho outfitter I have known for 37 years told me of stopping for breakfast in a small town in north central Alberta where he met a local rancher. The rancher said,” I see you are from Idaho, let me buy your breakfast.” The rancher then related to the ex-outfitter that he was paid by the U.S. Federal Fish and Wildlife for cattle killing wolves live trapped on his ranch so that the wolves could be transplanted into Idaho.

   In a final note I will treasure my spring horse trips up Weitas Creek in the early 1980s where the elk in the meadows and on the hillsides numbered up to 300 elk. Idaho was one of the leading elk producing states in the nation. Region two is experiencing a decline in elk numbers. Region one, the panhandle elk herds are also in trouble. The Fish and Game is going in the right direction in more liberal wolf hunting and trapping seasons in an effort to reducing and controlling the “non-essential” non-native wolf. Maybe my grandson will be able to elk hunt and enjoy the thrill of hearing bulging bulls in the future?

    Gene Eastman, Graduate of the University of Idaho, School of Forestry, majoring in wildlife management; Certified Wildlife biologist, The Wildlife Society; Retired Conservation Officer, Idaho Department of Fish and Game (1970-1993); Retired Air Force Master Sergeant, USAF and Air National Guard (1955-1997); Resident of Weippe area since June, 1973; Member of the Clearwater County Search and Rescue.