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SUMMARY: NRA's hunting magazine paints a grim - and wrong - picture of the devastation wrought by wolves.

Elk hunting in Montana is going to hell. Wolves are eating all our elk. Sportsmen are now facing up to the "idiocy of introducing an indiscriminate killer among populations of carefully managed elk, deer, mountain sheep, moose and livestock." All this according to the latest edition of the influential "American Hunter," a national magazine published by the National Rifle Association.

The lengthy article goes into great detail, quoting "experts" about the fact that "the ecosystem north of Yellowstone National Park has been, for all practical purposes, sterilized of wildlife" and lamenting that the "severe decline" of elk populations were completely predictable. Government biologists, we're informed, won't admit the extent of the problem. "Determining levels of wolf predation on elk and other big game is not an exact science," after all.

Neither, apparently, is magazine publishing.

In all its exhaustive research, "American Hunter" apparently failed to pick up on one tiny little detail: The thesis of its breathless account of how wolves are ruining elk hunting is flat-out wrong. While NRA's writers and editors were working up their exposé, Montana hunters last fall were enjoying their best hunting season in decades.

What's more, elk populations remain so large that the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is proposing even more liberal hunting opportunities next fall. Tentative regulations for 2004, now circulating the state for public comment, call for increasing the limit to two elk per hunter in some areas. FWP also is proposing extended and additional seasons for either-sex elk hunting. Montanans continue to enjoy an envy-of-the-nation five-week general big-game hunting season, along with generous early archery and special late seasons. In nearly two out of every three hunting districts, elk populations exceed management goals. Far from seeing a severe decline in elk numbers - attributable to wolves or anything else - Montana hunters today are living in the "good old days."

So, where's this notion about wolves ruining our elk populations coming from? Yellowstone National Park.

After hunters nearly wiped out elk in the 19th century, populations of these magnificent creatures rebounded under modern wildlife management, starting in Yellowstone. Hunting is prohibited in the park, and after wolves were killed off in the early 20th century, Yellowstone's elk herds grew largely unchecked. By the 1960s, the Park Service was thinning out the herds, trapping and shooting elk by the hundreds to hold the number at around 3,000. The slaughter proved controversial, to say the least. Ultimately, the Park Service embraced a let-nature-take-its-course philosophy, and Yellowstone's elk numbers soared, ultimately peaking at some 20,000 animals - a level widely acknowledged as unnaturally large and probably environmentally destructive. In the mid-1970s, Montana began special hunts on the park's periphery to take advantage of the thousands of elk pouring out of the park in winter. It was easy pickings, albeit not necessarily the epitome of the sport.

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The need to regulate Yellowstone's elk population was one of the arguments used to win support for reintroducing wolves in 1995. It appears to be working, although not as dramatically as expected by some. One study found bears eat more elk calves than do wolves in Yellowstone. At a conference held last spring to review wolves and their effect on elk numbers, Park Service biologists said computer modeling predicts the elk population in the northern part of the park likely will fluctuate between 5,000 to 16,000 over the coming century. FWP biologists last winter counted 9,200 elk along the northern fringe of the park.

FWP has reduced the number of late-season hunting permits in two units north of Yellowstone by nearly half in recent years. To someone looking to waylay an elk near the firing line along Yellowstone's boundary, perhaps the change - from the aberrantly high tide of elk flowing out of the park in the past to the levels today - does seem calamitous. Others might recognize an abnormal situation returning to something closer to normal.

Step back a little further, look at the whole picture, and you'll see Montana's big game populations are thriving. We've got a lot of country to hunt, and most of it is well populated with elk, deer and other critters. "American Hunter's" assertion that "Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are under siege by wolves" is laughable to anyone who spends much time watching and hunting big game.

Wolves do need to be managed, just as other wildlife - and people - do. FWP has a good plan for doing so. We remain optimistic that the return of wolves, ultimately, will enrich our treasured wildlife heritage, not destroy it.

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