A new study confirms what animal advocates have been saying all along: Don't blame the wolves for killing elk. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game conducted studies on collared elk in 11 study areas, and examined the causes of death. According to the Times-News, "Though statewide numbers have dropped some, claims that wolves are wholly responsible for declining elk populations aren't holding up . . . Biologists found that wolves killed significant numbers of collared elk in only one area." What were the other causes of death? Severe weather, bears, cougars, and hunters. In two of the 11 study areas, hunters were the number one elk killers.
Last year, Idaho Fish and Game wanted to kill 40-50 wolves in their Lolo zone because of their perceived effects on the elk population, yet they offered 1,492 elk hunting permits for that same zone.
These findings contradict hunters' claims that wolves are to blame for a declining elk population. Ecologist Scott Creel of Montana State University pointed out that the reintroduction of wolves may create an illusion that there are fewer elk, because the presence of wolves means that elk are less likely to stay out in the open.
Populations of wild animals go through natural fluctuations. When the number of prey animals drops, the number of predators will also drop. This leads to a recovery of the prey species, which leads to a recovery of the predator species. It's important to understand this, because hunters will often call for more hunting of whichever species is rising at the time, regardless of the fact that these populations will stabilize and fluctuate naturally.
Given time, Creel said, he thinks both populations would stabilize. He noted population sizes are only considered "good" or "bad" based upon arbitrary ideas of what the size should be. "No predator has ever eliminated its food," Creel said. "Change is always the most dramatic at the beginning, then population numbers settle."
Of course, there is also a problem with state wildlife agencies intentionally keeping populations high for hunters. And I have to be suspicious of Idaho Fish & Game's motivations for publicizing this study. Their survey of out-of-state hunters found that "three in 10 didn't plan to visit Idaho because of the perceived effect of wolves on elk populations." Is this study an attempt to draw more hunters to Idaho, which will lead to more sales of hunting licenses? Or is that just a happy coincidence for Idaho Fish & Game?
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