By Richard Cockle, The Oregonian
JOSEPH — Gray wolves have played a dramatic role in a 20 percent reduction of Idaho’s elk herds over the past 15 years — and that could be an omen for eastern Oregon’s 60,000 Rocky Mountain elk in the Blue Mountains.
Idaho elk numbers have fallen from 125,000 to 103,000 since about 1997 to the dismay of hunters, professional big game outfitters and small businesses that depend on seasonal revenues from hunters.
Habitat changes and heavy feeding by bears and cougars spurred the elk decline before wolves came on the scene, but state and federal wildlife research now links the continued drop in some areas to the increased activity of wolves, said Craig White, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist in Boise.
“What we found in the backcountry zones, we found wolves were the primary cause of mortality,” he said.
Within a decade, Oregonians may be faced with some of the same questions Idaho has grappled with: How many elk, deer or wolves does the state want to support?
Much depends on how fast Oregon’s wolf population increases. In Idaho, wolves exploded from 35 in 1996 to roughly 800 a decade later.
Hilary Cooley, regional wolf coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Boise, said Oregon’s wolves probably won’t multiply that rapidly. On the other hand, few expected Idaho’s wolves to increase at the rate they did, she said.
Adding to the complexity, eastern Oregon’s elk numbers already are trending downward and have been for more than a decade, said Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Bruce Eddy of La Grande. That’s happening for the same reasons as Idaho’s decline: habitat changes and killing by bears and cougars.
Wildlife managers here are keeping a close eye on Idaho, but it’s too early to know if Oregon will see a replay of what’s happened in Idaho, Eddy said. As wolf numbers grow, he expects a change in the distribution of elk from open meadows and prairies into rougher mountainous, wooded terrain, he said.
“It’s tougher for wolves to hunt in those areas,” he said.
In Idaho, wolves number at least 705 (in contrast to a mere 28 roaming Oregon). They were taken off the federal endangered species list last May and are classified as a big game animal. Since August, sport hunters and trappers have killed 321 wolves in Idaho, including Oregon-born OR-9, the brother of Oregon’s celebrity wolf OR-7.
Biologists have drawn some conclusions from Idaho’s 15 years of balancing wolves and elk, White said, including:
– Among Idaho’s 29 elk management zones, wolves are the primary cause of mortality in the hardest-hit herds, he said. And those zones are the state’s most remote. Winter calf survival in two of those zones, for example, is now 30 percent and 52 percent respectively, compared to 71 percent and 89 percent before 2004, when wolf densities were lower, state statistics show.
– Elk numbers are holding their own in Idaho’s “front country,” where wolves and elk roam together near ranches and farms. It’s in such areas that conflicts involving wolves and domestic livestock occur, and wolves often are trapped, hunted and shot.
Idaho had to come up with its own wolf management blueprint because while Canada, Alaska and Michigan all have wolves, they have differing habitat and their prey base consists mostly of moose, caribou or white-tail deer, not elk, White said. Idaho’s management includes helicopter gunning to reduce wolf numbers in elk recovery zones.
Sean Stevens, a spokesman for the Portland-based conservation group Oregon Wild, suspects Oregon’s approach will differ considerably from Idaho’s when all is said and done.
“I think the level of support for wolf recovery in Oregon is much different than what you have in Idaho,” where many people are more hostile to wolves, he said. He may be right: 17 percent of Idaho residents hunt compared to about 8 percent in Oregon, according to federal wildlife figures.
White said the people of Idaho appear happier now that the state, not the federal government, is in charge of wolf management. “Idahoans feel like they have some control back in their lives, that they can guide their own destiny,” he said.
Suzanne Stone of Boise, spokeswoman for the 530,000-member Defenders of Wildlife, worries about the rate at which Idaho wolves are falling to bullets, leg-hold traps and government aerial gunners.
“Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be any bottom line,” she said. She blames Idaho’s 20,000 black bears, 3,000 cougars and numberless coyotes for most of the state’s deer and elk predation. Stone also said it’s wrong to ask taxpayers to subsidize killing wolves to bolster big game populations.
Still, from the perspective of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Idaho’s wolf recovery program is a success, Cooley said. The reason is that wolf numbers haven’t fallen below the federal recovery goal of 150 individual wolves and 15 breeding pairs in any three-year period.
“The state has given us their promise they are not going to let that happen,” she said.
Oregon wildlife managers are waiting to see what happens, but one researcher — Charles Kay, a senior research scientist at Utah State University — predicts Oregon elk herds ultimately will shrink to 10 percent of what the environment could otherwise support because of wolves.
Kay has made detailed evaluations of Yellowstone National Park and the southern Canadian Rockies wildlife and bases his forecast on what happened in Canada in the 1980s when wolves returned and big game populations fell.
But not everyone agrees with Kay’s work. Eddy is dubious about his predictions for Oregon. “Nature is way too complicated to make that sort of prognostication,” he said.
Eddy points out that despite the presence of wolves, elk are overrunning the 150,000-acre Zumwalt Prairie in northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa County. An estimated 3,400 elk threaten to overgraze the unique grassland.
“We’re trying to figure out ways to get rid of them,” Eddy said of the Zumwalt elk. “And that’s where the wolves are.”