What's eating the elk? 

Folks in the Bitterroot know the answer is wolves. State biologists aren't so sure.

Julie Fillingham was standing stock-still and quiet in the dense undergrowth of the Bitterroot River's West Fork during hunting season last year, waiting for a bull elk to pass by, when something on the forest floor caught her attention.

At first Fillingham thought it was a stump. Lifting her binoculars for a closer look might have spooked the elk, so she just watched; whatever it was, it was squat, black and motionless against the pre-dawn brush, and it was just 40 yards away. Only when she saw the tracks later did she realize she'd been staring at a wolf.

"I went back over to where I was standing," she says. "The sun was up. No black stump, but wolf tracks...I kept thinking, 'It looks like the black head of a dog, with ears.' It was."

Fillingham and her husband, Scott, have hunted and guided in the West Fork for the better part of a decade. The two run the Hamilton-based Accurate Outfitters and cover a range of hunting districts: 240, 270 and 250, which includes the West Fork. Non-resident hunters are their bread and butter. But there's a new hunter in the woods these days, a hunter largely absent from this region for half a century.

Scott Fillingham says he used to see a moose every time he ventured up the West Fork. He'd run his hounds there without a leash on mountain lion hunts. He'd hunt the high ridges and pack trails for elk, which numbered nearly 1,500 when he first branched out on his own with Accurate Outfitters five years ago.

He doesn't see moose up the West Fork anymore, he says. And he leashes his hounds if he chases lions. The elk? They mostly hang out at lower elevations now, in dense brush and along rocky slopes.

click to enlarge news_feature-1.jpg

The Fillinghams don't take clients after elk anymore. They can't, they say. And they know who—or, rather, what—is to blame.

"There's tracks all over," Scott says.

Wolf tracks.

Last year, Fish, Wildlife and Parks set a harvest quota of 18 gray wolves in the West Fork, in only the second wolf hunt in Montana since the species was first reintroduced to the Northern Rockies in 1995.

Beginning with an experimental population of 66 in Yellowstone National Park, wolves have dispersed throughout Montana, their numbers bolstered by migrants from Canada and transplants in central Idaho. By the end of 2010, FWP estimated there were 566 wolves in Montana—an increase of 7.4 percent over 2009. Idaho estimated its 2010 wolf population at just over 700.

In December, FWP deemed it necessary to extend the 2011 wolf hunt across much of the state, through Feb. 15, 2012. Hunters have only managed to remove three wolves from the West Fork since the season began last year.

"There's places you can't put your foot down without stepping in wolf turds," says Scott Boulanger, a member of the Bitterroot Elk Working Group and owner of Circle KBL Outfitters, the only outfitter with overnight camps in the West Fork. "They'll run those pack trails, they're like us. They're going to take the easiest path, run the ridges just like we do. You don't want to go through the thick blow-down crap... Those are the places the elk are trying not to be."

The situation in the Bitterroot often borders on volatile. Hunters, outfitters, public officials and business owners are crying out for the state to take more drastic steps to cull the wolves. The predators are killing all the game, they say; FWP has sacrificed one species, the elk, for another.

The numbers sound convincing. The dramatic drop in the West Fork elk herd—1,900 in 2005 to 764 in 2010, according to FWP—roughly coincides with the expansion of wolves into western Montana.

In considering the quota for its 2011 hunt, FWP estimated the current West Fork wolf population at around 30.

Locals tell stories about glowing eyes peering out of the forest near trailheads. They talk about pets disappearing from front yards and porches and about feral canines seated near bus stops in the early morning, watching school children. Public meetings are dominated with the stuff of Grimms' Fairy Tales.

But what's really behind this steep decline in elk numbers?

For FWP, it isn't an easy answer to come by biologically. In late 2010, the agency announced a three-year study to address the condition of elk herds in the Bitterroot's East and West forks, with a start-up price of $150,000. Biologists collared 40 cows and ear-tagged 66 calves in spring 2011 in order to track their movements. They captured an additional 19 cows and 31 calves last fall, hoping to boost data on wolf predation through the winter.

Hunters don't doubt the wolves are to blame, but as year one of the elk study wraps up, FWP is uncovering data that may suggest otherwise.

Where there's tracks...

Ben Jimenez circles what looks like a scene from a Cormac McCarthy novel. We're not far up the Hughes Creek drainage, which meanders through the snow-covered blow-down toward the West Fork. The snow at our feet is packed solid and stained with blood, urine and bird shit. In the center of it all, on its back, rests one of the forest's latest victims: an elk calf. At least, what's left of an elk calf.

click to enlarge FWP biologist Ben Jimenez spends at least two days a week monitoring collared elk in the Bitterroot’s West Fork. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • FWP biologist Ben Jimenez spends at least two days a week monitoring collared elk in the Bitterroot’s West Fork.

Jimenez surveys the frozen carcass with a detective's eye. He peels hide away from spine with a folding knife. He examines the chipped and broken tips of ribs. When he's seen enough, he cuts through fat and tendon on a rear leg joint and pulls the femur away. He sets it down next to his pack.

"Wolf kill?" I ask.

Jimenez glances at the large canine tracks littering the snow nearby. There's a distinct dog-like turd lying a few feet from the carcass. It certainly seems like wolves were here.

"Looks like something did chew on those ribs," Jimenez says. "That's typical wolf behavior. They'll gnaw on the ribs."

Jimenez goes on to explain what the hunters who found this carcass told him: They discovered it five days ago, fairly fresh, close to this Forest Service road. They followed what they took to be wolf tracks into the forest, where they discovered about nine bedding spots.

But Jimenez is a biologist and FWP's main man in the field for its elk study. He can't form an opinion based solely on word-of-mouth and circumstantial evidence. There's enough evidence for him to postulate; as for a definitive answer, he's non-committal.

Jimenez, 35, has spent the better part of the last year either in or above the East and West forks. Roughly twice a week, he travels by truck or air to monitor the elk herds. The truck is a battered FWP rig with a burned-out headlight that he puts about 2,500 miles on a month. The plane is a two-seater Super Cub kitted with an array of telemetry instruments. This elk study, funded through a combination of state dollars and private donations, isn't cheap.

After poking at the carcass a bit more, Jimenez picks up a hefty, four-pronged telemetry antenna and starts scanning the bushes. The receiver emits a rapid "ping" that grows stronger and fades as he walks around. He's searching for an ear tag. He finds it buried in the snow a few yards away.

He cracks the calf's femur in half on the tailgate of his truck. Usually, he can get a rough idea of the animal's health from the texture of the fat in the marrow, but this one's too frozen to tell, so he chucks both pieces back into the forest.

"I have no doubt people get wolves," he says as we head back down to the main branch of the West Fork. He means that they see them. "I've seen them from the air quite a bit, and I've heard them on the ground howling. But when you hear stories of, 'Oh, they were surrounding us in our tent and we looked out and saw their eyes all around us'...you kind of nod your head and let it go."

The West Fork is revered in the Bitterroot. Located above the small town of Conner, it's a relatively close getaway that lies partly in the untamed Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Hunters, campers, day-hikers and fishermen frequent it. It's attracted trophy homes at lower elevations as well as expansive ranches like the Triple Creek, which topped Travel + Leisure's list of best American hotels last year. The streams hold westslope cutthroat, brook and rainbow trout. Elk, moose and whitetail and mule deer used to graze the low-lying fields by the hundreds.

Some find this last point—the decades-long abundance of game—ironic. The Corps of Discovery, headed by Lewis and Clark, nearly died of starvation while wintering in the Bitterroot in 1805. The same herds FWP is now studying are likely related to elk brought to the Bitterroot by railcar in the 1930s as part of an elk augmentation effort statewide.

"It wasn't until probably the '90s that we were dealing with over-populations of elk," says FWP biologist Craig Jourdonnais, whose grandfather was involved in the augmentation. "The older folks remember all the work it took to get there, and I think that's part of what's driving the frustration. They don't want to go backward."

Explanations for the recent elk decline vary, among residents in the Bitterroot as well as among governmental agencies. FWP doesn't dismiss the possibility that wolves are to blame, but they've pointed to a growing list of other possibilities, mostly related to a changing landscape. The U.S. Forest Service offered its hypothesis for the decline in a 2009 draft travel plan for the Bitterroot National Forest. It acknowledged local concerns over wolves while suggesting that human hunters might have had more to do with it.

click to enlarge John Wood of Big Bear Taxidermy displays a wolf hide. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

"FWP increased the number of antlerless elk permits in the mid-2000s because elk populations exceeded objectives, and recent antlerless harvests have been high," the report states. "FWP feels that the decline in elk numbers in the Bitterroot is likely primarily due to increased antlerless harvests achieving a planned management reduction, and that there is no evidence that wolves or combined predator numbers have much to do with the decline of elk counted through 2008."

The Forest Service also said that poor forage in 2006 might have contributed to stress the following year, and could explain low survival rates for elk calves.

The main problem up the West Fork is calf recruitment, the rate at which young elk survive their first years and reproduce. Right now, calves aren't surviving long enough to replace older elk in the herd. At last count, there were only 11 calves per 100 cows in the West Fork. Healthy herds have about 25. As for the hunting pressure cited by the Forest Service, that reduction was planned, Jourdonnais says. Those populations should have rebounded quickly, and they haven't.

Biologists believe there could be many factors at play here. That's why Jimenez checks the marrow on dead elk: If it's weak and looks gelatinous, it could be indicative of poor nutrition and explain poor survival in harsh months. If all he sees are wolf kills, that could be telling, too.

So far, Jimenez has been less alarmed by wolf activity in the West Fork than by other factors. He was surprised to find that mountain lions killed 13 tagged elk calves last year. And they've noted far fewer black bear kills than they anticipated. Wolf predation will likely increase as more snowpack accumulates this winter, he says. Last year, the agency recorded only three confirmed wolf kills on tagged calves.

Considering the high rate of lion predation, Jourdonnais says, the study may highlight a need for FWP to more thoroughly investigate the lion population in the West Fork. The agency has no solid population figures. Wolves could be taking the rap for them.

Or, Jimenez says, the wolves could just be contributing to a lion problem by pushing lions off fresh kills. Jimenez hopes to get some remote field cameras placed on dead game to capture possible predator interactions.

Or perhaps the problem lies outside the West Fork. Tracking the elk's movements is vital to knowing where portions of the herd spend their summers. Biologists won't have a full set of such data until Jimenez finishes collecting dropped elk collars. But depending on where the elk tend to forage, FWP could be looking at a separate branch of its study dedicated to analyzing vegetation at summer grounds. Jimenez says that aspect would likely be taken up by FWP's partner in the project, the University of Montana.

The question of movement among the elk seems as important as predation. And it feeds into a broader concern about changes on the landscape. The West Fork doesn't look like it did decades ago, Jourdonnais says. There's significantly more irrigated land on the valley bottom, which could mean elk aren't moving to public land at higher elevations in the fall as they once did.

From what Jimenez has seen from the air and the ground, the elk aren't crossing Highway 93 into the East Fork and the Big Hole, not in any large numbers. And they aren't moving into Idaho. Years ago, Jourdonnais says, people felt strongly that there was a significant amount of movement by the West Fork elk over Nez Perce Pass. But, he says, "I cannot find that contingent of elk that we would feel are Idaho elk, so there may be some changes along those lines as well—that we're just not getting the same kinds of movement and migration we did decades ago."

If elk are staying in the West Fork year-round, it's not the West Fork as it used to be. The wildfires of 2000 torched thousands of acres of thick forest in the Bitterroot, changing habitat for scores of species. The intensity varied greatly in the East and West forks, Jourdonnais says, making it difficult to determine exactly how those fires impacted the elk, but it has "removed a lot of the security cover that was there at one time," he says. "Those elk have not necessarily tended to abandon the areas that they've always occupied. In some cases, it makes them more visible to hunters because the understory is burned off."

The fires could also explain the dramatic spike in elk numbers in the mid 2000s, Jimenez says. Between 2000 and 2005, the West Fork population rose from 1,215 to 1,914. Wildfires typically generate rapid forage growth, which lasts five to 10 years. As that growth subsides, however, the forage may not be enough to sustain such a large elk herd. "You saw a pretty big spike in elk numbers sometime in the early to mid 2000s," he says. "They were up to 1,800 or 1,900. It could have been a lot of things, but that coincided with when the burn was really productive."

The elk study still has two years to go.

People in the Bitterroot want answers now. "It might be global warming," says outfitter Scott Boulanger. "Maybe Bigfoot. You know what I think it is? It's aliens. Aliens could be snatching up all the calves. We don't know. There's a lot of things out there happening unexplained. You prove to me there's no such thing as Santa Claus. It's smoke and mirrors, man."

Tempers tested

Boulanger doesn't get riled easily. He's a big guy, barrel-chested, with cowboy boots and the look of countless days in the backcountry. His smart phone squawks with updates from his hunting camp. He has a long-range radio app that lets him communicate with his crews out in the woods.

But talk about the West Fork long enough and redness begins to spread across Boulanger's face. He speaks faster, interrupts himself in mid-sentence. He bought Circle KBL Outfitters 14 years ago and runs the only overnight hunting camp in the West Fork. He used to make his living taking non-resident hunters after elk up there, for four or five years. He'd take in 50 hunters a season at $3,000 a head. "I fed my family, paid my mortgage, just on West Fork elk hunting," he says. "Gone. The income last year was zero dollars."

Boulanger isn't the only one talking about financial loss. In response to the elk decline, FWP restricted the number of hunting permits in the West Fork to 25. A mere 10 percent of those—two tags—are available to non-resident hunters. For the few outfitters operating in the West Fork, the limit amounts to a death sentence for elk guiding in District 250.

Scott Fillingham didn't book a single elk hunter there last year, shifting his activity almost solely to districts nearer to his Hamilton base. On June 4, 2011, Indian Summer Outfitters owner Joe Ferraro held an auction for his outfitting equipment, his stock, his outfitter client list and his domain name.

click to enlarge Outfitter Scott Boulanger used to make a living guiding elk hunts in the West Fork. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Outfitter Scott Boulanger used to make a living guiding elk hunts in the West Fork.

Ferraro's fellow outfitters point to his closure—and his inability to sell much of his business—as just one example of the difficulties the elk decline has generated.

Hotels, too, are suffering. Jerry Dicken, owner of the Mountain Spirit Inn, in Darby, appeared before the Ravalli County Commission late last year to testify to his economic struggle. He echoed the popular sentiment that wolves are to blame for decreasing elk and deer populations. In the past several years, he says, he's seen a dip in seasonal business indicative of the decline in hunter visits to the Bitterroot. "In 2008, our November occupancy was 45 percent. In 2009, it was 31 percent. And in November 2010, it was only 23 percent." Dicken says he hasn't yet calculated the loss of business through the 2011 hunting season.

Hunters apparently just aren't flocking to the Bitterroot in search of trophy elk the way they used to. Local hunters aren't having much luck either.

"Not very many people are able to tag much," Dicken says. "A lot of the hunters here in the past year basically went after cows. That was it. They just went out for the meat instead of the bigger elk. There just weren't many to be had."

Big Bear Taxidermy in downtown Darby keeps hearing the same thing from hunters: There just isn't any game in the West Fork. They keep busy tanning hides and cranking out black bear rugs. On a recent Thursday, the shop had a zebra hide and an ibex hide resting on one of the backroom tables. Big Bear gets a lot of out-of-state business, says Dustin Nielsen, who's worked preparing hides and mounts at the shop for four years. And they did receive several wolves from Montana and Idaho already this season, including one of the three shot up the West Fork. There have been very few elk this season, though, he says, and fewer mule deer and moose.

The economic trickle effect of the elk decline coupled with the supposition that wolves are to blame caught the attention of Ravalli County officials last year. Commissioners called on locals to submit stories of run-ins with wolves and to supply information about how businesses have been hit by the wolf's reintroduction. The evidence began to stack up. A Hamilton rancher shot two wolf pups standing in a field near his sheep in August. A third pup was hit by a car on Highway 93 south of Darby later that month, supposedly while feeding on road kill. Commissioner Suzy Foss said residents no longer feel safe allowing their children to play outside unsupervised.

"We have historic cattle ranches from the Sula basin to Florence going under, especially those with grazing permits they can no longer use," Foss wrote to FWP officials and Gov. Brian Schweitzer in September. "Our farm production is down due to elk feeding year round in hay and grain fields...Pets are disappearing from front porches. Sheep, goats and chickens are prey to young lions and wolves down on the valley floor due to the losses in our deer populations and the fact that they too have been driven from the forests to the river bottoms following the remaining herds seeking safety."

FWP has recognized a problem with wolves in the Bitterroot, even if it hasn't taken the steps demanded by outfitters. As the issue of state management over wolves raged in federal court in 2010, the agency requested that U.S. Fish and Game extend management privileges in the Bitterroot in time for a 2011 hunting season to cull the wolf population. The animals were once again delisted last spring, however, placing management in FWP's hands and giving officials time to arrange a fall hunt. FWP maintains its stance that a fair-chase season should be enough to fill quotas.

"Hunters may not realize that there are good, accessible areas for wolf hunting remaining, and that there are still open quotas," Quentin Kujala, FWP's fish and wildlife section chief, said in a statewide wolf quota update this month. "For those wanting to harvest a wolf, now is the time."

Boulanger wants more. Hunters can't meet the state's quotas under the restrictions placed on wolf hunting, he says, arguing that FWP's hunting regulations and harvest quotas amount to a "predator protection plan." His temper flares when he thinks back on all the explanations FWP has offered for not taking more aggressive action against wolves.

Locals have demanded more lenient predator hunts, pointing to Idaho as a model. Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife has outlined the differences in predator control between the two states on the group's website. Idaho allows baiting and trapping for lions, bears and wolves; Montana doesn't. Non-resident predator tags in Idaho are $31.75; in Montana, they're $350. The seasons are longer in Idaho. You don't have to wear orange. There's no wolf quota.

Rattling off this list, Boulanger's voice rises.

"When the discussion at the meeting turns into increased bear harvests, increased lion harvests and increased wolf harvests," he says, "Craig Jourdonnais says, 'You know, I was reading a study the other day, and if you remove more than 6 percent of the adult sow bears, you're going to have an impact on the population, so we better be careful.' Craig, that's the problem! ...You're breaking your own rules! It says you must manage [predators] and you're not! Our deer and elk numbers are 63 percent below objective, we're in the toilet, we have no recruitment and you just say you want to be careful about the bears?"

click to enlarge FWP’s Ben Jimenez searches for an ear tag near the remains of an elk calf in the West Fork. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • FWP’s Ben Jimenez searches for an ear tag near the remains of an elk calf in the West Fork.

It isn't Jourdonnais's fault that there aren't any elk up the West Fork, Boulanger says. And it isn't the fault of Jourdonnais's boss, regional wildlife manager Mike Thompson. Boulanger blames seven people: FWP's director, its commission and the governor who appointed them. "The commission in Helena is so far disconnected from the general public," he says, "that you could have a war in the streets of Darby with wolves hanging off of poles and street signs, there could be lynching and bombings and mayhem, and the commission would just be, like, 'Let's have a meeting.'

"Their idea of addressing the wolf harvest was to extend the season [to February 15], and you don't have to wear orange," Boulanger continues. "When that doesn't work, what are they going to do? Extend it another month?"

Earlier this month, FWP requested a second extension for the wolf hunt in the West Fork, ending April 1.

No wolves have been harvested from the area since the agency issued its first season extension in December.

Bleeding beyond borders

The situation doesn't appear to be getting better anytime soon. In fact, the problems in the West Fork are beginning to bleed beyond the borders of District 250. The elk population in the East Fork has plateaued in the past few years. Jourdonnais notes that bull calf numbers are actually declining and that calf survival is becoming a concern.

FWP is now looking at scaling back hunting opportunities in District 270 this fall. Bull elk hunters may have to get a permit, though the number of permits would remain unlimited since the elk population there remains above the agency's management objective of 3,000.

What's behind this downward trend?

The first year of the elk study has highlighted at least two new priorities for FWP's biologists. Kelly Proffitt, who heads the study, says the higher-than-expected ratio of lion kills on calves last year suggests a need to understand better the distribution and density of feline predators in the East and West forks. But until her team gathers more data on wolf predation this winter, Proffitt won't know how high a priority additional lion data will be.

After collecting body-condition data from roughly 200 adult elk cows in various drainages throughout 2011, Proffitt says the study will likely also branch out to investigate forage quality later this year. "What we've seen with the body-condition work," she says, "has highlighted the need for us to...actually get out and do some vegetation sampling and try and better understand the nutritional resources available to elk, particularly the West Fork elk."

Meanwhile, locals demand action.

FWP understands their concerns, Jourdonnais says.

His experience in the Upper Bitterroot has taught him that economic factors are an important consideration in wildlife management, he adds. "When you have a loss of hunter numbers and you have more restricted opportunities, certainly businesses feel that," he says. "It's not something we should just ignore."

Montana's current ability to manage wolves through public hunts places some control in the hunters' hands. And Montana Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife is doing what it can to encourage such hunts, by offering a $100 prize to any hunter who bags a wolf. But so far this season, hunters have only filled 60 percent of the statewide 220-wolf quota.

Dustin Nielsen at Big Bear Taxidermy and Jerry Dicken at Mountain Spirit Inn say they haven't heard of many hunters venturing into the West Fork for wolves. Scott and Julie Fillingham have heard wolves howling a few hundred yards away, they say, but "can't get them out of the trees to get a shot."

Boulanger offered his clients a lion-wolf combo hunt this season, but only in his outfitting district on the Selway in Idaho, where lax restrictions and cheaper tags are more enticing to non-resident hunters. "Obstacle one: the price," Boulanger says of marketing Montana wolf hunts. "Non-resident tags are $350. What's the chance of killing a wolf? Slim to none."

click to enlarge State biologists prepare to release a cow elk on Andrews Creek after checking its health. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CRAIG JOURDONNAIS
  • Photo courtesy of Craig Jourdonnais
  • State biologists prepare to release a cow elk on Andrews Creek after checking its health.

Boulanger's dug into state and county laws, hoping to find a more aggressive way to fight elk predation. He points to a section of Montana Code that outlines a petition procedure for livestock owners to implement a county-based predator bounty program. In mid-January, the Ravalli County Commission released a draft of a county wolf-control policy that calls for a quota-less hunt with extended seasons and allows trapping.

The issue sets neighbor against neighbor in the Bitterroot. Marc Cooke, in Stevensville, who is pro-wolf, says he hasn't lost any friends over wolves yet but he's been in countless heated discussions. Cooke founded the National Wolfwatcher Coalition eight months ago in an effort to balance anti-wolf sentiments and already has 3,975 members nationwide, he says. "What I see happening is, you've got the individuals that are radicals on both sides, and there's no room to compromise. They're digging in."

Cooke says he's not against hunting, just "irrational fear and hate." He adds that he thinks the wolves are the targets of subconscious misdirection. "I think people see wolves as a form of the federal government," he says. "They didn't have enough input when [wolves] came here, and now that the wolves are here, they're not happy." FWP has already gone too far with its wolf hunts, he says.

Others, like Jerry Dicken, don't think they've gone far enough. "The wolf," Dicken says, "is a sore subject."

Yet Ben Jimenez says there's been a positive response to FWP's study. The locals might razz you a bit, he says, especially when they get to know you, and they may not have the kindest words for his agency, but they understand the importance of learning more about the complexities of the West Fork's elk. Beyond solving the mystery of the Upper Bitterroot's elk decline, the study's data will provide a thorough baseline for comparison with other elk herds throughout the region—a component that state managers largely lack at present.

"I don't think there's going to be one quick fix," Jimenez says. "It took us a while to get to this point, and it's going to take us a while to get back."

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