Timm Twardoski, owner of Bitterrook Elk Co., a Hamilton-based booking agency for non-resident elk hunters, says Bitterroot-area wolves have for years forced him to send clients far from the Bitterroots in order to steer clear of canine competition.
So last week, when Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) announced a drastic reduction in the number of Bitteroot elk permits available this fall, Twardoski was happy to hear the agency finally, in his view, acknowledge the problem: wolf predation.
"[FWP] and the Forest Service have always skirted around the issue that it is a wolf problem," he says. "Now that that's being validated, in a sense, by them, anybody that had any doubt—people reading the blogs and following this who thought, 'This is an exaggeration, it's not so bad'—[will believe it]. When you drop the tags like that you're validating that there is a problem."
FWP accepted a request to slash anterless elk permits following spring monitoring flights that found the lowest cow-to-calf ratio since 1963—an average of 15 calves per 100 cows.
"The issue here now is that we're not producing enough calves to sustain the numbers that we currently have if, in fact, that trend continues in the long run," says Craig Jourdonnais, FWP's Bitterroot wildlife biologist. "That's the big concern."
While Jourdonnais correlates wolves with dropping elk numbers, he's not ready to lay blame squarely on the contentious predator's shoulders. He points to recent cool and wet springs, which can lead to pneumonia among calves in the first week or two of life, and predation by bears, mountain lions, coyotes, wolverines and eagles.
"Right now we're trying to figure out exactly what's going on with these calves, and certainly wolves are having an impact," Jourdonnais says. "But for me to say exactly the degree they are would be a guess at best."
The news comes ahead of Montana's first state-sponsored wolf hunting season, slated to begin this fall unless environmental groups successfully halt it in court. As many as 75 wolves would be shot in the state, including 22 in western Montana.
But, according to Wayne Hedman of the Bitterroot Elk Working Group, even a hunting season may not be enough to keep Bitterroot wolf numbers in check.
"I haven't talked to a lot of people who have seen a wolf out in the woods," he says. "I think they are very, very elusive, and I'm not comfortable believing that that's going to be the resolution to the problem."