Saturday, February 2, 2019

Fact Check: Have Wolves Depleted Elk Herds?

I was recently directed to the website of the Foundation for Wildlife Management, an Idaho group that reimburses hunters and trappers up to $1,000 per wolf for their costs of legally killing Idaho wolves. The website’s headline: TIRED OF WOLVES DESTROYING YOUR WILDLIFE? Under the “Wolf Facts” tab: “Idaho is in danger of losing its rich diversity and ample numbers of deer, elk, moose, and wild sheep" [to wolves]. 

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation gave $25,000 to this group for each of the last three years. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game also gives the group money.

This same group is trying to get a similar program voted into law in Montana.  

Is it true that wolves have depleted elk herds across Idaho? Wyoming? Montana?


In August 2018 Idaho Department of Fish and Game issued a press release that forecasted hunting opportunities for the upcoming season. It revealed:

“Idaho elk hunters are having some of the best hunting of all time, and there’s no reason the current streak can’t eventually compete with all-time highs…”

Since 2014, elk harvests have been consistent with the record-breaking harvests that occurred before wolves were reintroduced in 1995.

Most of Idaho’s elk herds and harvests have been at or near historic highs in recent years and well above long-term averages. Hunters should see similar numbers in the 2018 season.

In 2017, elk hunters had an overall success rate of 24 percent and took 22,751 elk, IDFG stated. The 2017 elk harvest ranked second-highest in the last decade and sixth of all-time. It’s 30 percent above the 50-year average elk harvest.

Idaho’s elk population remains so strong, IDFG writes, because elk have experienced less mortality due to winter’s harsh weather. In a recent winter, for example, two-thirds of all elk calves survived statewide, and that’s above the long-term average. (Since wolves often prey on elk calves, I interpret this IDFG statistic as showing that wolves had little effect on elk calves statewide.)

But, the press release does reveal that something is different. “While Idaho is reliving some of its glory years for elk hunting, the location of the animals has changed. During record harvests in the 1990s, Central Idaho’s backcountry and wilderness areas were major contributors. They are less so these days, but other areas have picked up the slack.” Elk have moved from the wilderness and backcountry toward the safer interface between forest lands, agriculture, and rural areas. 

IDFG urges elk hunters to go where the elk are.

My Conclusion: Statewide, hunters in Idaho are experiencing some of the best elk hunting of all time and taking as many elk now as they did in the record-setting years just before wolf reintroduction. Wolves have not depleted Idaho’s elk herd statewide but have changed how elk move around in some areas.


I studied a report from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department that provided a 2018 forecast for all eight elk-hunting regions in Wyoming. Six of the eight regions are at or above elk population objective levels set by WGFD. Two of the six present challenges for hunters. In both those regions, Jackson and Sheridan, the problem is that elk are more frequently migrating to or remaining on private land. The solution: “Hunters who can gain access to hunt or cross private lands are expected to have high success.”

A September 2018 article in the Casper Star adds the following:

Elk hunting is expected to be good across wide parts of the state. Elk numbers should not be the limiting factor. The number of elk in the state is 31 percent above WGFD objectives.

Elk hunters had a success rate of 43 percent, a figure considered high for big game, and took 24,535 elk in 2017, according to WGFD. The agency expects hunters to harvest more than 25,000 elk in 2018 as it works to bring populations down and closer to objective.

But, as in Idaho, something is different for some elk hunters. “The resurgence of predators in Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks and the prevalence of private-land safe zones have helped upset the advantages once enjoyed by hunters. An increasing portion of the Jackson Elk Herd has abandoned familiar long-distance migration routes and spends time in areas shunned by grizzlies and wolves or where those predators have been removed or discouraged — areas that are often difficult to access or off-limits to most hunters.” While not migrating as far, the Jackson Elk Herd is very near the population objective of 11,000 according to WGFD.

My Conclusion: In most of Wyoming the elk population is above the set objective and hunting is expected to be good. While the presence of wolves has changed the migration patterns of some elk, and hunters may not find success where they once did, wolves have not depleted Wyoming’s elk herd statewide.


In August of 2018 Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks issued a press release that forecasted hunting opportunities statewide. Their release revealed:

These are good times for elk hunters in Montana. Elk populations continue to be strong across most of the state. However, in many hunting districts access to private lands can be difficult. This can reduce hunting success since many elk are staying on private lands.

MFWP analyzed elk hunting opportunities for all seven regions of the state. Elk hunting looks good in four of the seven. However, In the northwest corner of Montana, the last two winters have brought harsh conditions and deep snowfall that is hard on big game populations. (This is Region 1 where the groups that want wolf trappers reimbursed are scapegoating wolves for poor elk hunting. MFWP blames harsh winters.) In western Montana, elk counts were down slightly this spring, due to a combination of factors including a good harvest last hunting season and difficult conditions for counting elk during the annual flights. Finally, in northeast Montana elk hunting opportunities are limited. 

In 2017 hunters took 30,348 elk in Montana.

In December 2018 the Billings Gazette reported that in 2016 only 12 percent of Montana’s elk hunters were successful.

My Conclusion: Elk hunting can be good in Montana with elk numbers strong across most of the state. However, as in Idaho and Wyoming, elk are staying on private land and this makes taking those elk more difficult for hunters. In none of the three areas with challenging elk hunting opportunities were wolves noted as causing the problem by MFWP. Wolves have not depleted Montana’s elk herds statewide.

To Explore this Further Read:
Empty Handed Elk Hunters Can Learn from Wolves

Other Fact Checks:
Has the U.S. Wolf Population Recovered? 

Rick Lamplugh writes to protect wildlife and preserve wild lands. His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves and the award-winning sequel, Deep into Yellowstone, are available signed from Rick or unsigned on Amazon in paper, eBook, or audio book formats.

Rick's new book, The Wilds of Aging, is the prequel to In the Temple of Wolves and is available signed or on Amazon in paper or eBook.

Top photo of Idaho wolf by IDFG


  1. I don't usually comment too much when I come and read. But I can't believe the exorbitant amount of money that powers misinformation put out there can the public.

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