Monday, October 29, 2018

Fact Check: Do Wolves Decimate Game That Hunters Want?

An often heard complaint from those critical of wolves is that wolves decimate many kinds of game animals that humans hunt. I decided to consider that complaint’s validity. To do so, I first looked at the diet and hunting habits of Yellowstone wolves, since they are probably the most studied wolves in the world. 

The Yellowstone Wolf Project inspects the remains of animals that park wolves kill. The Project sends teams by land or air to study specific wolf packs. These technicians may see a kill occur, but most investigate the remains of kills. Other technicians hike, ski, or snowshoe to where the Project suspects a carcass. The Project’s annual reports summarize its findings on wolf kills. I studied all the reports published since wolf reintroduction in 1995. These provide a clear picture of wolves’ impact on many park animals.

Many of these same animals travel out of Yellowstone and into Montana to graze or hunt. Once outside the park, they can be taken by hunters. So I looked at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks database to calculate the impact of human hunters on the populations of animals that wolves hunt. 

photo by NPS

Let’s start with elk, a preferred meal of humans and wolves. The Yellowstone Wolf Project reported in 2016, for example, that elk made up about two-thirds of wolves’ diet. The head of the Project, Doug Smith, told a WyoFile reporter that wolves take up to 2,156 elk each year in Yellowstone. While that number may look large, hunters take 20,000 to 30,000 elk each year across Montana.

Wolves and hunters choose different prey. In 2016, the Project estimated that of the detected wolf kills in the park 36% were calves and 27% were adult males. Outside the park in Montana, of the elk hunters took 4% were calves and 45% were adult males.

Then there’s those feisty giants, bison. Only one Yellowstone pack, the Mollie’s, makes its living bringing down bison. Other packs gorge on bison that are killed by winter or other natural causes. Bison make up less than ten percent of the wolf kills studied. However, the Project notes that predation on bison appears to be increasing. In 2016, for example, 19 of the wolf kills studied were bison. In contrast to this, more than 1,100 Yellowstone bison were killed last winter--captured in the park and shipped to slaughter or shot by a firing squad of hunters just outside the park’s northern boundary.

A moose is another big meal; Smith told WyoFile that a moose will feed a pack of fifteen or more wolves. But bringing down a large animal with hefty hooves and awesome antlers must not be inviting; the Project found the remains of only 61 moose taken by wolves since 1995. Contrast that with the 270 moose taken by hunters in Montana in 2017 alone.

A deer, a much smaller animal, may yield 75 to 100 pounds of meat for a hunter’s freezer. A single deer feeds just four to six wolves. Deer make up only about ten percent of the wolf kills studied. But the Project reports that the number of mule deer taken by wolves also appears to be increasing. Wolves will never take as many deer as hunters do, though. In 2016, for example, while 19 of the studied wolf kills in the park were deer, hunters took more than 50,000 deer across Montana.

Pronghorn, built for speed, can outrun wolves; the Project found only 40 brought down by wolves since 1995, most likely calves or ailing adults. But pronghorn cannot outrun bullets. In 2017 alone, hunters took more than 14,000 antelope in Montana.

The Project also tallies competitors eliminated by wolves. Coyotes top that list; the Project has detected the remains of 100 coyotes killed by wolves since wolf reintroduction. Most coyotes die while scavenging at wolf kills. It’s difficult to estimate the total human impact on coyotes since they can be shot year-round without a license in Montana. However, a coyote killing contest held in Montana in January took the lives of 191 coyotes in just one weekend.

Wolves hold second place on the competitor list with the remains of 85 found since 1995. Wolves battle one another to defend territory or claim a meal, but the number of wolves killed in these conflicts is small. In 2016, for example, the remains of only three wolf-killed wolves were found in the park. In that same year, hunters took 247 wolves in Montana.

After considering all this data, it’s clear to me that while wolves take some of the game we humans chase, wolves don’t decimate and, in fact, have a much smaller impact than hunters do. I think this data also shows that humans and wolves compete for the same food, and that, I believe, is a big part of why so many humans are at war with wolves.

Rick's award-winning Deep into Yellowstone and best-selling In the Temple of Wolves are available signed from Rick or unsigned on Amazon.

Rick's new book, The Wilds of Agingis available signed from Rick or unsigned on Amazon.

Photos by Rick Lamplugh unless otherwise noted.


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  2. Important research & info! Thank you for all you do to promote common sense, understanding, appreciation, & acceptance of the wolf; a vital animal for maintaining balance in the last remaining wild places. <3