|photo by NPS|
I once attended a Montana Fish and Wildlife commission meeting to comment against a proposal to increase the number of wolves that could be killed once they stepped out of Yellowstone National Park. I wasn’t alone, others stood against the proposal. But there were many people who supported it, wanted more wolves killed. A comment I heard from that side went like this: We should kill more wolves because wolves are killing so many elk that it’s harder for me to find elk to kill.
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For days that comment plagued me. There’s no doubt wolves kill elk. They were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995 to help reduce the out-of-control elk population. From Yellowstone they spread into Montana. But are wolves killing so many elk that hunters come up empty handed?
Montana’s wildlife agency keeps thorough records on elk hunts and wolf populations, and I dug through both.
Ten years after that 1995 reintroduction, Montana had 256 wolves and hunters took more than 26,000 elk in Montana.
Twenty years after that reintroduction, Montana had 536 wolves and hunters took more than 30,000 elk.
In other words, while Montana’s wolf population doubled, hunters took more—not less—elk.
I don’t doubt that some hunters are having a harder time bringing down elk. And I also don’t doubt that those empty-handed hunters can learn from wolves, the vey animals they want to blame and kill.
Yellowstone has a wolf pack named Molliie’s pack, in honor of Mollie Beattie, the late director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. She was instrumental in the reintroduction of wolves.
I’ve been lucky enough to watch that pack hunt bison. I saw them sort and sift through a herd, looking and listening and smelling for any sign of a vulnerable animal, a possible meal.
Bison are only part of the Mollie’s diet, which varies by season. In summer and fall elk make up most of the pack’s diet. But once winter arrives and elk become scarce in the pack’s Pelican Valley home, the wolves have two choices.
First, they can switch to eating bison that winter in Pelican Valley. A bison is ten to fifteen times heavier than a wolf and armed with sharp horns and deadly hooves. Bringing down a bison is dangerous and may take days. But the pack hunts smarter and succeeds.
The Mollie’s second option is to leave Pelican Valley and go where the easier-to-hunt elk go. That’s why they travel to the Lamar Valley and hunt elk each winter.
Empty-handed hunters have the same options as the Mollie’s. First, hunters can stay in their preferred elk hunting unit but hunt smarter. Second, they can go where the elk are and join the large number of hunters who take elk even as more wolves roam Montana.
Instead of blaming and killing wolves, elk hunters can learn from them. After all, wolves have survived on their hunting skills far longer than we humans have.