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Preparations underway
to document wolf impacts

May 25, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder


Back in the winter of 1988, when Mark Hurley and Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) biologists in Region 2 were developing and validating the techniques we rely on today to census the Blackfoot-Clearwater elk herd, none of us were thinking much about wolves.

Back then, we were most interested in obtaining more accurate estimates of elk population size and composition to address concerns about damage on private ranches and survival rates of bulls.

Although helicopter time is expensive and represents a serious drain on our annual budgets, we repeated the Game Range elk census annually for the first few years to work out the kinks in our methods and test for year to year reliability and consistency. By 1994, we were confident we had demonstrated the validity of our methods and I recommended that we cut back to one census every other year.

I've regretted that missing data point in 1994 ever since because the 1995 census gave us our first indication of a calf survival problem. Because of the severe and unexpected dip in numbers of calves counted in 1995, we repeated the census in 1996. Then the hard winter of 1997 hit, so it was a no-brainer to repeat the Game Range census in 1997, 1998 and 1999 to follow the population through the lingering effects of that event.

In January 2000, we completed our 12th elk census in the past 13 years. Of those, 9 census points give us an unusually accurate picture of our elk population. The other three surveys were disrupted by fire (1992), ice (1997) and the wrong helicopter-type (1988).

I'm not bragging because I admit it's as much a matter of luck as planning, but this string of data on the Game Range elk population must be among the best in the northern Rockies.

And now we really need it.

Because all appearances suggest a female wolf will den and produce pups in the Ovando area this spring. If that occurs, and if the new pack settles in and around the Game Range, our elk population will be subjected to an additional source of natural mortality. Oh, wolves have been seen occasionally in the vicinity of the Game Range for quite a few years already, and certainly they've preyed upon elk. But, the impact of a few transient wolves cannot compare with the potential predation rates that might be exerted by a resident pack of several animals.

Everyone has an opinion on how wolves would impact the elk population on the Game Range, but the truth is, no one knows. Thanks to FWP's exceptional data on the Game Range elk population, we have a unique opportunity to document any substantial changes that may be attributable to increased wolf predation.

The key to taking advantage of this important opportunity is to hold other factors as constant as possible. For example, what if we count 25% fewer cow elk in 2001 than we counted in 2000? This would represent an unprecedented, sharp decline that would logically be attributable to wolf predation if a pack is confirmed to be hunting the Game Range, assuming other factors are held constant from this year to next year. But, if FWP and the FWP Commission increase licenses for cow elk in Hunting Districts 282 or 285, and if we have good hunting weather this fall, it would be very hard to separate the effect of the hunting change from the effect of wolves.

It is important not to miss this opportunity. If wolf predation is demonstrated to be occurring at a level that cannot be sustained by the elk population, this information may be adequate cause for FWP to request some limited relocations of wolves by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. On the other hand, we may be able to document that wolves exert a relatively low impact on our elk population that can be sustained for now. In either case, it is important to know.

So, this is not the time to tinker with other influences on the annual elk census that might muddy up our results in the eyes of FWP, the Fish and Wildlife Service, or the public.

That's why when the Commission meets in June to propose final numbers of antlerless elk licenses for HDs 282 and 285, FWP will recommend that we stay at last year's levels. In case you've forgotten, it would be 50 A-7 licenses for HD 282 and 50 A-7 licenses for HD 285. Some of you are aware that this year's quota was tentatively increased to 100 in HD 285, but in light of the wolf issue, I suggest we remain at 50 for at least one more year. If we receive confirmation that the wolves did not establish a pack in time for the June Commission meeting, we will stick with the original recommendation of 100 A-7 licenses in HD 285.

Then there are mountain lions. Two weeks ago, the Commission adopted tentative quotas for Hunting Districts 283 and 285 that were proposed by a group of houndsmen. Last winter's quota for lion harvest was 15 females and 10 males, for a total of 25. Based on houndsmen input and our own limited data, FWP recommended reducing the female quota from 15 to 8 for this coming winter to allow a declining population to level off and stabilize. And, based on input from local lion hunters, FWP recommended reducing the male quota from 10 to 7 to begin recruiting more large males.

The tentative quotas that the Commission adopted for public input would take us in a different direction. The tentative quota of only 5 females might allow for a more rapid increase in lion numbers than would be advisable right now, while we're hoping to document the level of impact caused by wolves. The tentative quota of 10 males is the same that we've had in place for the past two years, and would be expected to further reduce the average age of male lions in our local area.

The Commission is especially interested in hearing from the public on the lion quotas. Your local commissioner, Charlie Decker, can be reached by mail at 176 Hammer Road, Libby 59923, or by phone at 293-6465. Stan Meyer is Commission Chairman, at 3417 14th Avenue South, Great Falls 59405 (phone 453-0144).

Whether by luck or design, we're in a great position now to shed light on the effects of wolf predation on the Blackfoot-Clearwater elk population. It took 13 years and about $35,000 in helicopter time to build the data set we are relying on. Forgive me if I'm a little sensitive to any tinkering with elk or lion hunting seasons that might cloud the issue at the eleventh hour.

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