It is rather common in my part of the world to hear that wolves are ruining the elk hunting. Elk numbers are down due to wolves, is the refrain, which goes along nicely with the “Smoke a Pack a Day” bumper stickers.
Table from Ripple and Beschta 2012. Trophic Cascades in Yellowstone: The first 15 years after wolf reintroduction. Biological Conservation 145:1 (215-213)
There is little reason to think that anyone knows this for sure. The above figures, from Yellowstone Park, suggest that elk numbers have declined since wolf reintroduction, an idea which is intuitively valid. Yellowstone may have the best such data of any area in the northern Rockies, but even these numbers should be viewed as suspect. Comments in the article that a recent movement of elk herds to more wooded terrain having biased the numbers downward reveals the funding driven and inexact method used to count elk in Yellowstone: a few people in late autumn flying low in a plane. The statistical margins of error are rather larger than those for Cottonwood sprouts along the Lamar.
Outside Yellowstone, reports vary widely. Elk numbers are down in the southern Bitterroots, but up in the Gallatins. Down (or is it up?) in the Cabinets, but holding steady (or up?) in the Bob Marshall. A big part of the problem is that, like in Yellowstone, there’s high expectation put on the numbers, but little money directed towards making sure they’re solid. Even the supposedly large increase in wolves west of the Divide in Montana is speculative, because Fish, Wildlife and Parks has exactly one biologist on the job. Of course, sample size is a problem here as well. While wolves naturally reestablished themselves in Glacier in the early eighties, reintroduction efforts starting in 1995 really built genetic momentum, and a decade and a half is an eye-blink when it comes to the population dynamics of large mammals.
For these reasons, I don’t put much stock in protestations that wolves are ruining elk hunting. As intuitively obvious as wolves altering elk movements is, it is equally obvious that this movement would be away from river bottoms and open areas and into steeper and thicker terrain, a conclusion the aforementioned study would seem to support. In other words, wolves are likely to move elk away from the places hunters can easily go. This is as true for road hunters in trucks and on ATVs as it is for hunters on horses. Complaints about low elk yields in the Whitefish range, i.e. not being able to shoot them from a logging road, are thus the same as those of low yields from the Sun River country (i.e. not being able to shoot them within 100 yards of your horse).
And even if the wolves are drastically reducing elk numbers, as they might well be, I see it as no fit target for indignation. Wolf and elk populations, or so we assume, have always run on countervailing and ultimately complimentary cycles. Lots of elk mean that wolves eat lots, means that wolves have more pups, means they eat even more elk, means the elk population dips, means that some wolves starve, means the elk population goes back up. Again, it is intuitively evident that the reintroduction and reacclimation of a climax predator would prompt wilder vacillations. The assumption that management exists, almost as such, for the purpose of human recreation is the same idea which led to wolves being eradicated in the first place. Some folks still think this is a valid way to view the world. If the events of the past half century have not persuaded them otherwise, there isn’t anything left for me to say here. As Abbey wrote: “This is a courageous view, admirable in its simplicity and power, and with the weight of all modern history behind it. It is also quite insane.”
This in the end is my problem with wolf hunting. It may be sound science, but the cultural forces arrayed in support of it have, either intentionally or by accident, removed many of the tools which would allow a better answer to that question. But wolf hunting is, these days and at best, motivated by science in a tertiary fashion. Primarily wolf hunting is driven by the same fear of the unknown, kneejerk anthropocentrism, and simple bloodlust which annihilated the bison herds and drove Grizzlies to the brink of extinction. Secondarily it is part of the same historical forces which ended the Salmon runs and damned Glen Canyon. The forces which to this day create prairie dog and coyote “hunting” as acceptable sporting activities. This I will not accept or participate in.
Wolf hunting does not have to be this way. Were the debate less polarized more space for knowledge might exist, and hunters might harvest predators out of respect, sound management, and the desire for a nice rug, rather than a centuries-old vendetta. Perhaps we’ll get there in my lifetime.