13 Sep 2010, 9:36pm
Deer, Elk, Bison Wildlife Agencies Wolves
by admin

No Evidence Links Lolo Elk Loss to Habitat

Ed Note: This excellent essay appears in The Outdoorsman No. 40 June-Aug 2010. The entire issue is [here]. Some previous posts regarding elk in the Lolo Zone (upper Clearwater River watershed, Idaho) are [here]. Excerpts from other issues of The Outdoorsman are [here].

By George Dovel, editor/publisher The Outdoorsman

Shortly after World War II ended, the Washington, D.C. based Wildlife Management Institute recommended the Idaho F&G Commission invite thousands of out-of-state hunters to harvest “trophy” Idaho big game animals in remote backcountry areas allegedly to prevent damage to habitat. The result of similar recommendations to other western states is evident in the sudden big game harvest increases during the 1950s followed by eventual severe harvest declines during the mid-1960s and early 70s.

Elk Study Proves Habitat Did Not Cause Decline

By 1964, elk harvests in the Clearwater had declined dramatically so the “Clearwater Elk Ecology Study” was launched – with the first five years devoted to evaluating habitat quantity, quality and elk use. The next four years found high conception and calf birth rates but very poor survival during the first two weeks after birth.

The result of the first nine years of careful study was that 13 years of extended either-sex hunting seasons and too few surviving calves – not habitat – were responsible for the mid-1960s elk decline.

The next 10-years of study proved that reduced cow elk numbers could no longer provide enough newborn calves to feed the black bears during the brief calving period, plus feed other predators later and still provide replacements for the elk that die each year. Trapping and relocating 75 bears in 1976 tripled the number of surviving elk calves, and doubling the bear bag limit in year-around seasons restored the elk in a few years.

The 19-year study and a dozen similarly extensive peer-reviewed studies in Canada, Alaska and the Great Lakes all arrived at the same conclusion. Where multiple predators, including wolves, existed with alternate prey species, it was necessary to reduce the number of predators dramatically once prey populations were reduced – regardless of whether the prey reduction was natural or man-caused (as in excessive hunter harvests).

By 1985 even wolf expert David Mech admitted he was responsible for resurrecting the “balance of nature” myth as a graduate student and wrote “Far from being ‘balanced,’ ratios of wolves and prey animals can fluctuate wildly – and sometimes catastrophically.” He illustrated the necessity to dramatically reduce wolf numbers whenever their prey declined and F&G agencies in the Northern Rockies promised wolf numbers would be carefully monitored and controlled if they were introduced.

F&G Fails to Monitor Elk Populations

The Idaho Legislature did not allow IDFG to manage wolves for eight years after it violated Idaho law by secretly approving the FWS plan and issuing FWS a permit allowing them to transplant wolves into Idaho. But even after the Legislature rewrote and then approved the 17th IDFG draft of its wolf plan in 2002, F&G failed to follow even the provisions it had written into that plan.

For example, Page 23 of the 2002 State Wolf Plan requires IDFG to conduct a census every year of selected prey populations, including at least population size and sex and age ratio, with additional information required when concerns are raised about wolf predation (emphasis added). Instead, biologists conducted these mandatory counts only once every 3-5 years and did nothing to assess the impact of wolf predation for several years.

F&G Denied Winter Losses, Increased Cow Permits

Despite peer reviewers’ concurrence with counting total deer and elk and then comparing the numbers with pre-wolf counts to determine the impact of wolves, biologists also ignored that input. They also ignored the 19 years of research in the Clearwater and all of the research elsewhere implicating predators, and denied any adverse impact from the 1992-93 winter and the 1996-97 winter.

For a year after the severe 1996-97 winter they continued to claim cow elk losses were less than normal in Lewiston Tribune articles and increased the number of antlerless permits in the 1997 elk season! They continued to insist that declining calf survival since 1992 resulted from aging brush fields that were being replaced by forest.

Zager Spent 20 years Trying to Prove the Habitat Myth

That is the same excuse other biologists used 40 years earlier with the same results. The famous Clearwater elk herds have continued to decline for the second time, but instead of seeking the truth as happened in 1964, research biologist Pete Zager and his helpers have wasted nearly two decades and countless dollars unsuccessfully trying to find some evidence to support their habitat excuse as they allowed the elk herd to be decimated.

The UN – Nature Conservancy – IDFG philosophy of reintroducing wolves into ecosystems to create a “natural balance” prohibited biologists from killing wolves and from admitting the truth – that uncontrolled wolves ultimately destroy healthy elk herds and leave them in a predator pit from which they cannot recover without help.

IDFG 2005 Wolf Control Proposal Violated 10J

When former Idaho Gov. Kempthorne signed the Agreement with the Secretary of Interior on January 5, 2006 to manage wolves, Idaho biologists’ proposal to kill 43-50 wolves in the Lolo Zone was written so it could not be approved by FWS (see “10J Wolf Control Plan Sabotaged” on Page 10 of The Outdoorsman Bulletin No.38 at: http://www.idahoforwildlife.com/Outdoorsman.html ). The Proposal falsely claimed (without offering any proof) that “Forest Maturation” was the sole primary cause of elk declines, with bear and lion predation causing calf declines and wolf predation likely contributing to low cow survival.

Rather than rewrite their Proposal to include facts instead of the habitat myth, Idaho biologists insisted that habitat is always the primary cause of wild ungulate declines. FWS Wolf Leader Ed Bangs suggested IDFG hold the proposal and took two years to re-write and get final approval of another 10J version which allowed control if wolves were just a contributor to elk declines.

But that same 10J version by Bangs included the lie that predation is never the primary cause of prey declines despite the results of uncontested long-term scientific studies that prove just the opposite is true.

Meanwhile in 2007, Idaho biologists wrote their own version of an Idaho wolf plan, upping the minimum requirement for each state to leave at least 20 breeding pairs intact before any control of wolves impacting big game can be approved. Bangs included that in the final 10J proposal published on Jan. 28, 2008 even before it was finally approved by the Idaho F&G Commission in March.

Habitat Had Little or No Impact on Elk Decline

When Judge Molloy canceled Idaho’s proposed 2008 wolf hunt on July 18, 2008, Clearwater Region Biologist George Pauley gathered factual information from numerous long term peer-reviewed studies proving that habitat was not a cause of prey declines. These included research in the Clearwater by Pauley back in 1995, which was included in a 2008 10J proposal to lethally remove an average of 105 wolves for five years.

The Outdoorsman has published much of this data for several years and it was a pleasant surprise to see a written admission by IDFG officials that declining habitat was not a significant cause of elk declines in either the Lolo Zone or elsewhere in Idaho. As this issue is printed the 2010 Proposal is still available on the F&G website at http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/apps/surveys/10tenj/10j.pdf . But for readers without internet access, I am publishing the following comments from that 26-page proposal.

The comments include F&G conclusions from scientific studies in the Lolo Zone, throughout Idaho and in other states and provinces, that habitat has had little or no impact on the decline of big game populations (where alternate prey species and multiple predators exist). They are published here with the reminder that “density dependence” refers to elk numbers being controlled by the quantity or quality of available habitat.

Comments in Idaho Rule 10(j) Proposal, Lolo Zone

At its peak in 1989, the Lolo Zone elk population was estimated to number 16,054 elk. Elk calf recruitment rates at that time ranged from 25 to 31 calves per 100 cows, while (annual) cow elk survival was estimated at 88.6%. Those vital rates were sufficient to support moderate population growth, despite sustained annual cow elk harvest. Informal assessment of forage utilization suggested that the elk population had not exceeded or even reached habitat potential at that time.

Beginning in 1992, recruitment rates dropped to levels at or below 20 calves (per) 100 cows, and low recruitment has been chronic since then. Biologists speculated that the recruitment decline might be a density dependent response caused by the elk population growing near habitat potential in the late 1980s. Consequently, the population objective range was established below the peak of 16,054 elk to address that possibility. The minimum objective population with 30 calves per 100 cows would be 9,230 which is 57% of the peak population estimated in 1989.

Despite the substantial abundance decline in the Lolo Zone, calf recruitment failed to respond in a density dependent fashion, but rather responded in an inverse density dependent manner to declining abundance in the Lolo Zone, a pattern common to other Idaho elk populations. (Pauley 2007). Pauley (2007) examined recruitment trends in Idaho elk populations following harvest-caused population declines and population declines caused by low recruitment.

Following harvest-caused population declines, recruitment rates declined from a mean of 37 calves:100 cows to 29:100. Furthermore, recruitment rates remained low and failed to return to pre-decline levels for 6 years.

Following recruitment-caused abundance declines, recruitment rates declined further from a mean of 26 calves:100 cows to 18:100.

While the Lolo Zone elk population declined sharply from the peak in the 1989 to the 1997-1998 estimate of 7,746 elk, the estimated calf recruitment rate also declined sharply from 28.6 to 6.6 calves:100 cows. Thus, estimated density declined by 53% while estimated recruitment declined by 77%. Such strong inverse density dependence casts serious doubt on the prospect that the Lolo Zone elk population is limited by density dependent mechanisms. Pauley (2007) revealed a similar pattern of inverse density dependence in other Idaho elk populations.

White and Garrott (2005) failed to detect a density effect on recruitment in the Northern Yellowstone elk herd. They suggested that the Northern Yellowstone herd did not reach carrying capacity and questioned the conclusions of others in that regard.

Data on elk body condition in the Lolo Zone suggests that nutrition is not limiting elk population performance. Some evidence of significant malnutrition would be expected if elk populations were limited by food quantity.

IDFG measured body condition score via palpation and ultrasonography on adult cow elk in GMU 10 during December 2005, January 2009, and January 2010. We found mean body fat composition levels of 12.8% in 2005, 11.7% in 2009, and 12.6% in 2010. Research with captive elk suggests that the observed body fat composition levels would not likely be associated with deaths or reduced productivity from malnutrition (Cook et al. 2004).

Additionally, there was little evidence of malnutrition among wolf-killed elk. Of the 37 adult cow elk killed by wolves, malnutrition was identified as a potential predisposing factor in only four deaths. Of the 21 calf elk killed by wolves malnutrition was identified as a potential predisposing factor in only one death.

Pregnancy was determined for 112 adult (& 2 years age) cow elk captured during 2002-10. The mean pregnancy rate across all years and areas was 0.84.

Research in Yellowstone National Park revealed that wolves tend to prey on older cows (Smith et al. 2004) that have lower survival rates (Raithel et al. 2005), lower fecundity (Raithel et al. 2005), and consequently, lower reproductive value (Wright et al. 2006) than prime-aged cow elk, suggesting an element of compensation.

Of the 28 cow elk killed by wolves in the Lolo zone during 2005-2007, year-specific ages were available for 13 cows. The mean age at death of those cow elk was 8.1 years. Eight were prime-aged ( 10 years). It is apparent that wolves were not exclusively preying on older elk.

After wolf reintroduction, annual cow elk survival declined to much lower levels without the occurrence of human-caused mortality among radio-collared elk. Across GMU’s 10 and 12, the mean survival during 2002-2009 was 80%, and survival appears to decline with increasing wolf-caused mortality. Reduced survival with the addition of wolf-caused mortality would demonstrate an additive effect.

Given the demographic circumstances, the reproductive portion of the population (cow elk) will continue to decline, and, consequently, will not reach the Lolo Zone cow elk abundance objectives. Wolf-caused mortality is the major factor limiting growth of cow elk abundance, and achievement of State objectives.

Over-Harvesting Healthy Herds Destroyed Productivity

In other words, Elk Researcher Pauley and others who prepared the current 10-J Wolf Reduction Proposal have admitted in writing that over-harvesting healthy elk herds that were restored in the 1970s and 80s caused declining recruitment – rather than preventing it. Killing off even more cows to “increase production” – despite no evidence the elk were anywhere near carrying capacity – merely hastened the inevitable destruction by wolves.

Killing more breeding females in the misguided belief that it will somehow magically increase fecundity and juvenile survival might be compared to accidentally hitting your thumb while hammering – and then deliberately hitting your other thumb with the hammer to treat the original wound.

Since the late 1950s, I have watched each new generation of Idaho biologists destroy healthy deer and elk herds by killing too many – and then kill even more in a futile effort to correct what they caused. Doing this, instead of vigorously protecting the remaining breeding stock and reducing the number of predators to a level that will quickly restore optimum production of their prey, reveals blind ignorance of both recent history and science.

Over-Harvesting Caused Calf Declines in Other Elk

The “harvest-caused population declines” found in other Idaho elk herds by Pauley are the result of wildlife managers selling extra hunting opportunity instead of managing wildlife. According to recent counts, in nearly all of the elk zones that formerly produced most of Idaho’s elk harvests, bull and/or cow numbers are either barely meeting the minimum or are below it.

Pauley’s 2007 report that over-harvesting caused calf-to-cow ratios in other Idaho elk herds to decline from 37:100 to 29:100, and then to 18:100 from predation, etc., shows what is really happening since IDFG began pretending to manage habitat and ecosystems. Yet Pauley sent similar widely circulated information to Clearwater Wildlife Manager Jay Crenshaw 14 years ago, in a memo dated April 30, 1996, but it was essentially ignored.

The 2010 Proposal also states, “Mid-winter surveys of at least 20 to 25 calves:100 cows is typically necessary to maintain population stability in the absence of hunting,” yet neither the Commission nor IDFG biologists, including Director Groen, have taken steps to halt these calf declines which ultimately eliminate human harvest.

F&G Director Continued to Repeat the Habitat Lie

In Groen’s January 2009 meeting with JFAC (the Idaho legislature’s Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee) he repeated Pauley’s finding that wolves were causing a 15% annual decline in elk populations. Yet in a meeting in his office with me and Deputy Director Unsworth two weeks later, Groen discussed the same decline but angrily shouted, “It’s the habitat!”

Instead of listening to Groen, McDermott, and other biologists and commissioners who use “declining habitat” and “federal wolves” as excuses for their failure to perpetuate our wildlife resource, a reality check is in order. Even if wolves were magically removed from Idaho, the practice of selling excessive harvest opportunity while ignoring the signs of excessive harvests would continue to destroy healthy game populations and the abundant healthy forage that proper use formerly created.

In the real world virtually everything that is not run by government bureaucrats or manipulated by powerful special interests is performance-based. Instead of paying our state game managers more money for producing 40% less game to harvest, why not cut their budget by 40% until sustained increased harvests justify added revenue?

Biologists Continue to Repeat the Habitat Lie

At the same time the Aug. 2010 Lolo Wolf Control Proposal on the IDFG website told the world there was no evidence habitat reduced the number of wolves in the Lolo Zone, page 3 of their August 2010 Idaho Fish and Game News on the same website said “In the Lolo Zone deteriorating habitat and other factors contributed to a long population decline, dropping from about 16,000 in 1988 to fewer than 8,000 elk in 1998.” (emphasis added).

Until citizens convince their elected officials to force these bureaucrats to stop using habitat as an excuse and obey the laws we already have, new legislation won’t solve the real problem. Do it now – before it’s too late.

11 Oct 2010, 12:35pm
by Carl

Amen. thank you

17 Jan 2011, 8:38pm
by Jim

Great read. You would think more people would give enough of a crap about this heinous act we have had unleashed upon us,so that it could be corrected. Its hard to believe it was allowed in the first place.It kinda makes a guy wonder,was it an accident? Was it simply greed? Or was it an intentional act of grander proportions? That fact that wolf control continues to be delayed despite dangerously low levels of elk, reassures suspicion.



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