Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) filed a proposal with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this month to remove 12 wolves from the Bitterroot's West Fork population. The agency backed its request by citing a dramatic decline in elk numbers in its West Fork Elk Management Unit, stating that wolf kills are "needed to restore [calf] recruitment rates."
Low calf recruitment was the same argument FWP made this July in support of a costly three-year study to determine why the elk population in the Bitterroot Valley has dropped 21 percent in four years. However, at the time FWP said it wasn't sure how much—or even if—wolves had contributed to the decline.
The sudden blame placed on wolves in the agency's most recent proposal contradicts much of what FWP has stated in the past. Kelly Proffitt, the biologist heading the elk study, told the Indy in July that the decline may be due to habitat and body condition issues. FWP Wildlife Biologist Craig Jourdonnais pointed to extensive wildfires and increased subdivisions on winter range as potential factors. Wolves are certainly part of the puzzle, he said, but he was "not convinced."
"It's not at all saying wolves are the problem," Jourdonnais says of the proposed wolf kill. "It's saying wolves are part of the predation issue that we feel is happening there, and we definitely want to get some management authority over wolves in the West Fork."
Derek Goldman, an Endangered Species Coalition field representative in Missoula, is as dubious of the wolf question now as FWP seemed to be this summer. The elk population in the West Fork reached similar lows even before the reintroduction of wolves, he says, referencing data from FWP's proposal. In light of the study—which has yet to even begin—Goldman believes FWP could be putting "the cart before the horse."
"I don't know that 12 wolves are eating 700 elk," he says.
Even the U.S. Forest Service has noted FWP's doubt over the impacts of wolf predation on elk, as shown in the August 2009 environmental impact statement (EIS) for the Bitterroot National Forest's draft travel plan.
"FWP feels that the decline in elk numbers in the Bitterroot is likely primarily due to increased antlerless harvests achieving a planned management reduction," the EIS states, "and that there is no evidence that wolves or combined predator numbers have much to do with the decline of elk counted through 2008."