Recently I attended a hearing in Helena where I heard numerous people, including many in the state legislature, asserting that wolves were “decimating” Montana’s game herds. Unfortunately, due to the widespread repetition of the lies and distortions, the only thing being decimated is the truth.
According to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, in 1992, three years before wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone and Idaho, there were an estimated 89,000 elk in Montana. By 2010, elk had been so “decimated” that Montana FWP estimated that elk numbers had grown to 140,000-150,000 animals.
Indeed, in 2012, according to FWP statistics, out of 127 elk management units in the state, 68 are above objectives, 47 are at objectives and only 12 are considered to be below objectives. And even among these 12 units, the causes for elk declines are often complex and involve more than wolf predation. In at least a few instances, overhunting by humans is the primary factor.
Beyond hunting, the presence of wolves has many other benefits. Wolves cull sick animals such as those with brucellosis and chronic wasting disease from herds that could threaten both humans as well as livestock. Wolves shift ungulates away from riparian areas, resulting in greater growth of willows and other streamside vegetation. This in turn creates more habitat for wildlife including songbirds and beaver. Healthier riparian areas also results in greater trout densities.
It is disturbing to me as a hunter and ecologist that FWP repeatedly fails to aggressively counter the distortions and misinformation. By its silence FWP is directly culpable for the unnecessary killing of predators that are essential to the maintenance of healthy wildlife populations. Such silence undercuts their credibility as trustees of Montana’s wildlife heritage.