(A version of this letter appeared in the Jackson Hole News & Guide)
The wolf issue is chock-full of emotion and less and less “full” of science. Some say there are too many wolves in Wyoming and they must be managed at lower numbers in order to slow down the “devastation” of the elk population. As a wildlife biologist, I disagree with this, and data from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department corroborates this lack of devastation.
Carrying capacity is an equilibrium point and is based wholly on whether the resources are available to sustain the population. Below carrying capacity, a population has high survival and high birth rates; above carrying capacity, a population has low survival and low birth rates. The population of wolves in Wyoming has grown steadily since reintroduction (and is still growing) indicating that wolves in Wyoming have not yet reached their biological carrying capacity.
In 2010, according to WGFD population counts, elk numbers statewide were more than 21,200 animals above the objective—counting only 28 of 35 herds (7 herd units were not counted as not all herd units are counted each year).
This data is taken from the ANNUAL REPORT 2010 Wyoming Game and Fish Department:
“The Department continues to manage to reduce Wyoming’s elk numbers. The total population of the herds with estimates increased by 16 percent in 2009 and is now 29 percent above the statewide objective of 83,640 animals.
The harvest increased ten percent from 2008 to 2009 and was above the five-year average (21,565). Hunter success [number of hunters successfully killing an elk] increased in 2009 to 43 percent and was slightly above the five-year average (42 percent). Hunter effort [# days spent hunting/animal harvested] decreased from 2008 to 2009, and the 2009 effort value neared the five-year average (17.8 days/animal).”
Today, there are more elk in Wyoming than there were thirty years ago with approximately the same number of hunters killing more elk. Data taken from the WGFD’s annual reports over 30 years show that the elk population, elk harvest numbers, and elk hunter success rates have steadily increased both pre and post wolf reintroduction while the annual number of elk hunting licenses sold has slightly decreased.
This data clearly refutes the claim that wolves are decimating elk populations, and shows that, on the whole, elk herds are not declining in Wyoming. I would argue that just because you can’t find an elk to hunt in the drainage you have hunted for years doesn’t mean they have been wiped out by wolves—they may have moved to another drainage that is less frequented by predators.
Certain geographic areas may experience localized impacts on ungulate populations; however, it could take multiple years of scientific studies to determine whether wolves are the primary cause of the decline. The tendency has been to blame wolves across the board for perceived declines in elk populations and to attempt to justify reducing wolves numbers based on this assumption. . I am not advocating for a continuing growth of the wolf population, just that we use science, not politics, in managing wildlife.