By Michael Howell
On a visit to the Bitterroot Valley last week, Dr. Robert Ream, Chairman of the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission, came prepared with a power point presentation aimed at situating the “wolf versus elk” problem within the broader horizon of predator/prey impacts in general, as well as the impacts of hunting and management practices on both the predator and the prey.
Ream said that western Montana has probably the most diverse predator/prey complex in North America, in terms of numbers of predator species and numbers of prey species.
“It makes it interesting scientifically, but difficult as managers to have such a variety to deal with,” said Ream.
Ream started with the general picture in terms of overall state management, but quickly came to focus upon the Bitterroot and from there to focus in on the south end of the Bitterroot and Hunting District 250, up the West Fork in particular.
Overall, he said, statistics show that the elk population statewide is doing well with numbers at an all-time high of 112,000. He said the state management objective calls for 90,000 which means about 22,000 elk over objective. He noted that out of six hunting districts in the Bitterroot Valley, two were over objective, three were at objective and only one was under objective: Hunting District 250, up the West Fork.
Ream said that forty years ago he participated in an elk study on the Three Mile Game Range in which a lot of elk were radio collared. He said that forty years ago there was only one third the number of elk as now. Twenty years ago, there were only half as many elk as now.
“Overall, the numbers are going up,” Ream said.
So what’s wrong in Hunting District 250?
Ream suggests, considering a number of factors, that it was a “perfect storm.” Those factors include hunting, predation and weather and have all moved in concert to tip the balance in that area against the elk. He said the drop in the calf/cow ratio had hit a critical low, but did show some sign of recent recovery.
Severe winters can depress calf production and survival rates. According to Ream, the West Fork experienced three severe winters in a row starting in 1988 which reduced calf/cow ratios down to almost 20 which is close to the bottom for maintaining a herd.
But it was in 2003 when the legislature passed House Bill 42 that “started the downward spiral.” Ream said the law required FWP to manage the elk “at or below the objectives.”
“It’s kind of like saying you are going to manage for ‘at or below average’, the average is just going to go down,” he said.
He points to the high elk harvest numbers that ensued. Once the law was put into effect the number taken jumped from 91 to 280 and continued at a high rate for years at 230, 188 and 132. These last few years also coincide with a decline in the calf/cow ratios. According to Ream, it was this high harvest of cows that really precipitated the storm.
Predators are another factor that affect the numbers of elk.
The arrival of wolves in the West Fork, according to Ream, added to the predatory pressure on the elk herds, but does not come close to the impact that mountain lions have. He noted that lions kill four times as many elk as wolves or bears. The results of an ongoing study of radio collared elk calves up the West Fork show totals of calf predation at four each attributed to bears and wolves, while the lion take has reached 15.
Ream said wolves first arrived in the West Fork during the high hunter harvest period. For four years it was a single pack. But this pack split and then split again. There are now two resident packs and another two packs that straddle the Montana-Idaho border in the area. Ream noted that the number of wolves counted in the West Fork over the last four years has remained stable at about 25 to 30. He said that the number of packs in western and southwestern Montana have also been stable for a number of years. Most of the growth in numbers, he said, is in the northwestern region where the recovery was natural to begin with.
Ream knows a lot about the natural recovery of wolves as he was on the team that radio collared the first wolf in the North Fork of the Flathead back in 1979. It was a lone female that had wandered down from Canada. Two years later she was joined by a male and a pack was formed. By 1985 it was a pack of twelve. It was called the “Magic Pack” because it would disappear and reappear as the agency tried to track its whereabouts.
It was members of this pack that dispersed and started the Nine Mile Pack. One lone male also wandered off into the Lolo area around Kelly Creek and when a female from the release in Idaho came over, they started the Kelly Creek pack that still exists in that area.
Ream cautioned people about how to read the FWP annual report on the wolf harvest. He said the total number of wolves killed, for instance, doesn’t include the 45 killed in the extended season which brings the total killed to hunting harvest to 166. So when you read that the wolf population has increased by 65, he said, it does not include those 57 wolves that have died from all causes since December 31.
Ream said that people need to remember that the quotas set in the wolf hunt are just that.
“They are a ceiling, not a basement,” he said. He characterized reaching 75 percent of the absolute quota “successful.”
Ream said that he worked hard for delisting the wolves and gaining state control of management. The state developed a good management plan.
“But Idaho dragged its feet and Wyoming held the whole thing up for years,” said Ream. “If Wyoming hadn’t stalled the thing, we could have been hunting for six years in Montana.”
He said Montana is moving cautiously now because a mistake could lead right back to federal control.
Ream said that the commission was trying to address all these concerns. He said they had adopted a hybrid season and he believed they would also increase the lion quotas and he was for increasing wolf quotas. He said the main effort at this point is to get the legislature to allow multiple wolf permits to individuals and to extend the season. He said trapping was also under consideration, although snares raise the problem of too many non-target animals being killed.
Ream said he voted against the final extension of the last season because of a need for consistency and the fact that FWP Region 2 Director Mack Long had estimated that the extension would only produce one or two more wolf kills. He said he was suggesting extending the season on the front end and starting in September.
Ream expressed confidence in the continued existence of a wolf population in the north west.
“We will always have a core population in northwest Montana,” he said. “Going back a hundred years, we would not have gotten rid of all the wolves without the use of poison. Hunting and trapping would not have done it. It was the use of poison. And we are not going back to that. So we will always have a core population in northwest Montana.”
An indication that things are already beginning to turn around in the West Fork is that the calf/cow ratio has been rising from a low of 9 calves per hundred cows in 2009 to 11 in 2010 and to 18 in 2011.
“It is still below what we would want, but it gives us hope,” said Ream.