Rebound of wolves takes toll on Idaho elk

SPOKANE -- Wildlife researchers devoted several sessions last week to the impact of predators on big game during the Western States and Provinces Deer and Elk Workshop in Spokane.

A Washington Fish and Wildlife Department researcher presented documentation of a dramatic increase in elk calf survival in the Green and White river drainages after cougar numbers were reduced.

Of particular interest to the gathering, just days before several states officially took over management of gray wolves, was an update on Idaho's research into the impact of wolves on elk. The report was presented by Idaho Fish and Game Department wildlife biologist Pete Zager.

"I'd like to tell you we have this ungulate-wolf thing figured out," he said as the audience of scientists eased into educated smiles. "But that's not the case."

While scientists are trying to gather data and study the options for finding a balance between wolf recovery and prey sustainability, wildlife managers are under public pressure to make decisions.

Zager said researchers don't have all the information they need, but they realize "we've got to get rolling and make decisions based on the information we have."

Here's what researchers know for sure about elk and wolves in Idaho, he said:

-- Elk herds are declining.

-- Wolf packs are growing -- well above original objectives.

-- The number of elk harvested by hunters has been declining, from around 25,000 in the mid-1990s, when wolves were reintroduced to the Northern Rocky Mountains, to roughly 15,000 last year.

-- Elk hunting seasons and quotas have been reduced for 2009, but the impacts of wolves are likely to go unchecked.

-- Wolf management through hunting is scheduled to begin this fall, but likely will be challenged in court by animal protection groups.

-- Wolves have become the most important factor in predation on elk.

However, they're not the only factor.

"Wolves have given cougars a huge favor by taking the spotlight. Cougars are still a significant factor (in elk mortality)."

-- Forest fire suppression also is a factor in elk declines.

-- The effects of wolves on elk vary dramatically in various game management units.

Bottom line: "We still need to be monitoring wolves and elk like crazy," Zager said.