The myth goes like this: Since wolf re-introduction 15 years ago, they have devastated Idaho’s elk populations. Hunters are not finding elk and people are not seeing elk any more.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game states Idaho’s elk population is doing fine. During the last 15 years, its elk population has dropped by 20 percent, due to factors such as habitat loss, wildfires, weather, increased numbers of black bears and mountain lions, along with the presence of wolves. The elk population remains above 100,000 and elk harvests by hunters have mostly remained stable during this time.
The IDFG has divided the state into 29 elk management zones with population goals for each zone. Ten of these zones have populations above their goal while 13 populations are within the objectives. In some areas, landowners complain about the numbers of elk damaging crops. Six zones have populations below what the IDFG would like to see. Five of these zones are due to predation, including three specifically affected by wolf predation. These zones are the Lolo near Lolo Pass, the Sawtooth in the Sawtooth Mountains and the Smoky Mountains near the Sawtooth.
Elk populations around the Sawtooth and Smoky Mountains have been affected primarily by wolf predation plus a hard winter in 2007. It is felt these zones will respond to the current management. The Lolo Zone, however, is the poster child for wolf predation. That elk population has plummeted by 70 percent from a high of 16,000 in 1988. The IDFG stated this decline began before wolves, because of deteriorating habitat and harsh winters, but the presence of wolves is probably keeping the population from recovering. Habitat improvement projects, changes in elk and predator hunting seasons, along with 48 wolves killed in the Lolo Zone during the last four years, are all working on improving elk numbers.
If a hunter’s favorite area is around Lolo Pass, they might be justified in saying their elk herd has been destroyed by wolves. However, an overall 20 percent drop in elk populations does not seem to signal devastation.
Wolves have definitely impacted elk behavior. Elk do not hang out in valleys as much, spending more time on mountain slopes and moving more often.
Some of this myth is probably due to people, including hunters, not seeing elk where they saw elk in the past.