Tim Craig began his career as a hunting outfitter in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of central Idaho. For 32 years Tim has faithfully returned to the remote wilderness. The main draw has always been elk hunting and the wildness of this 1.3-million-acre roadless expanse of trees and rocky peaks.
"That's where I cut my teeth; that's where my heart is," says Craig, who operates Boulder Creek Outfitters out of Peck, Idaho.
But Craig is fortunate to have several other areas to hunt because, by necessity, he's on the verge of giving up on the Selway-Bitterroot.
"I never used to ride on a horse for eight hours and only cut only one or two elk tracks," Craig said. "But that's what happens now, and you can't take clients into that kind of situation. I've pretty well come to the conclusion that it's time for me to move on. And I know of eight or nine other outfitters getting out of there as well. I'd be surprised if anybody is still there within five years. It's that bad."
While biologists point to invasive plants and hard winters as key factors in big-game declines, Craig and others who spend months camped in the woods single out another, toothier problem -- wolves. The Selway-Bitterroot was an original-release location for wolves in 1995 and 1996. In the years since, Tim says, the wilderness area has been hard hit by the resurgence of these predators.
"Wolves come in and run the herd out," Tim said. "I've been here for 32 years in the same areas, and we've got some spots where there are totally no elk or deer. "In the backcountry areas, the deer were the first thing that went once the wolves went in. Now they're just hammering the elk. It's pathetic."
PAST TIME FOR ACTION
Since being reintroduced to the northern Rocky Mountains, wolves have steadily spread into haunts they had not roamed since the 1930s. At the end of 2008, some 1,645 wolves were documented in the Northern Rockies. This includes parts of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, the eastern third of Washington and Oregon, and part of north-central Utah.
Federal surveys show that Idaho has the densest concentration of wolves, with at least 846. Next high are Montana (496) and Wyoming (302).
In recognition of those numbers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delisted wolves in early 2009 for the second time in as many years. Though the latest delisting met with predictable lawsuits from anti-hunting groups, indications are that the Obama administration supports the plan. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar needed less than two months to affirm the USFWS decision in early March.
In response, Idaho and Montana plan to have wolf hunts this fall. The states hope hunting wolves will help offset potential losses in hunting income that recent surveys estimated could be as high as $15 to $24 million. Others hope hunting will make the presence of wolves more palatable to hunters who have witnessed the big-game losses.
"It's way past time to do this," says Ed Bangs, the USFWS biologist who has overseen the reintroduction of wolves to the west. "(Wolves) should be managed and that management should include hunting. The wolf population can't keep growing. All the suitable habitat is filled now. So instead of having me in a helicopter shooting wolves after they eat a guy's cow, you can have hunters pay for the same privilege. By having hunting as part of the equation, you can have a more effective program that's cheaper."
WOLVES VS. BIG GAME
Many outfitters and landowners in Idaho and Montana agree that more aggressive wolf management is long overdue. Bangs says verified predation on livestock increased from less than 50 in 2002 to more than 450 in 2007. During the same period, costs associated with killing wolves that prey on livestock doubled to $300,000.
And while livestock predation dominates headlines, big-game herds have also suffered -- most notably elk. Dramatic losses have come in Idaho's famed Lolo hunting zone, north of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Craig says the Lolo zone has "gone from the best elk hunting in the country to where you can't find a single elk."
Research backs up those claims. "We can demonstrate that wolves are significantly impacting elk in the Lolo zone," Idaho Fish and Game Director Cal Groen recently told the Lewiston Tribune. That's true even though elk started disappearing prior to the reintroduction of wolves.
"The Lolo zone declined largely for other reasons, so it kind of became a cloudy issue," Idaho biologist George Pauley told the Idaho Tribune. "More recently you could probably make the case that it has declined by wolf predation.
Idaho Fish and Game biologists are in the preliminary stages of a study that shows wolves are the primary cause of death for cow elk in the Lolo zone. Cow elk numbers in the area are shrinking by about 13 percent per year, and only about 75 percent of the cows survive each year. Pauley says cow survival rates need to be closer to 87 percent to maintain a stable population.
Calf survival is also down, with only 75 percent surviving in their second six months of life. Wolves have been linked to 65 percent of the deaths in older calves. That's why Jim Unsworth, deputy director of the Idaho Fish and Game Department, says predation is keeping the elk herd from rebounding. As a result, no cow tags were sold in the Lolo zone this fall. More restrictions may be instituted in 2010 following aerial surveys.
WHITETAILS ARE DECLINING TOO
Wolves are taking a toll on elk elsewhere too. Hunters in many units north and south of Idaho's Salmon River reported fewer elk kills than in previous years. As a result, elk tag allocations were reduced this fall for the Salmon zone. Also, fewer tags were issued for the Sawtooth zone north of Boise. In all those cases, Unsworth says wolves are thought to be the main factor limiting elk numbers.
Wolf predation is also evident in Montana. In northwest Montana, hunter harvest surveys revealed a 17 percent decline in the number of
whitetail bucks killed by hunters in 2007. While winter was a factor in that decline, some also point to predation.
Wolves are more clearly to blame for declines in the elk herd around Yellowstone National Park. When wolves were re-introduced in 1995 the elk herd was at a stable 20,000. Today the Yellowstone elk herd is closer to 5,000 or 6,000 animals. Don Laubach is an elk-hunting author and a former outfitter, and he also runs E.L.K. Inc., a company that sells game calls worldwide. His business is located on the north end of the park, and that location offers him a unique perspective.
"Our moose population is just about extinct. The wolves took them first. Next came the elk. At one time this area was kind of referred to as the elk capital of the world. Right now it can't even be close to being called anything like that," Laubach says. "It's just a dying herd is what it is. And until you can control the predators, you won't see what we saw in the past."
LESS OBVIOUS IMPACTS
"Adding another top predator into country that was already home to bears and mountain lions has made it that much harder for elk," says Sandy Podsaid of Kingston, Idaho. Podsaid ran AW Adventures for 25 years before selling his outfitting business last year.
And Podsaid says the impact of wolves goes beyond killing cows and calves.
"We haven't been seeing elk-calf survival for so long because of the predators," Podsaid says. "What we're not recording is the loss of unborn calves due to stress from wolves chasing these cows in the winter. Calves are not even hitting the ground in the spring.
The cows are absorbing them because they are stressed from the chasing."
In other areas, wolves appear to be impacting elk behavior. Toby Bridges of Missoula, Montana, makes regular trips into the Bob Marshall Wilderness during elk bugling season in September. Last year on the first morning of his trip, he heard three bulls bugle.
For the next 11 days, Bridges says he "never heard another one bugle the whole time we were in there." That was in stark contrast to years past.
"It wasn't the hunter pressure that kept them quiet." Bridges said. "This country doesn't have any pressure. It's an 11- to 12-mile horseback ride in and we never saw another hunter. The one thing you do see is a lot more wolf tracks. Thanks to the wolves, the elk have learned to shut up."
WOLVES ON THE MOVE
Indeed, while elk have declined in places and grown quieter in others, wolf packs have increased dramatically since the U.S. government started its Rocky Mountain Gray Wolf Recovery Program. Wolves were first declared endangered in 1974, but it wasn't until 1995 and 1996 that the USFWS finally released Canadian timber wolves: 35 in Idaho and 31 in Montana's Yellowstone Park. In the years since, wolves quickly spread as populations increased by more than 20 percent per year.
Today, Bangs says, there are more than 1,500 wolves occupying 110,000 square miles in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The first two populations are well over plans calling for ideal totals of 500 wolves in Idaho and 400 wolves in Montana. "Resident wolf packs occupy nearly all of the suitable habitat in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, so there really isn't any more room for more wolf packs without lots more livestock and pet damage than we currently have," Bangs says.
Elk and deer have also been showing up in towns and cities with more regularity. Not surprisingly, so are wolves. "The headline a few months ago in Missoula was that wolves were spotted in town," Bridges says. "Missoula is a town of 70,000. The wolves have just been protected for so long they're not afraid anymore. This is the biggest wildlife issue that's hit the northern Rockies in our lifetime."
What's more, wolves are moving into new areas. A female wolf from Yellowstone wearing a collar fitted with a GPS device traveled 1,000 miles into the central mountains of Colorado in late February. That's at least the second wolf that has reached Colorado since 2004.
And in mid-April, two wolves were photographed killing lambs on a ranch in eastern Oregon. That's the first documented wolf attack on livestock in that state since the predators moved into Oregon in 1999.
Despite the science, surveys and costly studies, delisting failed last year. Wolves were removed from the protection of the Endangered Species list in March 2008. But delisting was derailed after environmentalists challenged plans to relax regulations on killing wolves. The lawsuit claimed wolf numbers would plummet if they were hunted.
In July 2008, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, Montana, agreed with that suit and granted a preliminary injunction to maintain protection for gray wolves in the Northern Rockies. Molloy said the federal government had not met the standard for wolf recovery in terms of "genetic exchange," meaning there was not enough interbreeding between wolves in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming to ensure healthy genetics.
That curious ruling sent Feds back to the drawing board, led by Bangs, who called delisting "a very biologically sound package" and says, "The hunting proposed by the states wouldn't threaten the wolf population. We felt the science was rock solid and that the delisting was warranted."
This time Bangs believes the USFWS decision will weather the lawsuits. Unsworth and others in Idaho hope that's true. "We'd like to show people in general that we can manage wolves like we do other animals. We're not going to annihilate them," Unsworth says. "There are going to be wolves in Idaho from now on."
WILL WOLF HUNTING HELP?
At this writing, Idaho's first wolf hunt was scheduled to start in September 2009.
Tentative seasons were Sept. 1 through March 31 in the Lolo and Sawtooth zones; Sept. 15 through Dec. 31 in the Selway and Middle Fork zones; and elsewhere Oct. 1 through Dec. 31. The state estimated it could sell more than 10,000 wolf tags at $10.50 apiece.
Hunting will cease after quotas are met, with Idaho hoping to reach a target population of 500 to 700 wolves.
"Right now I think wolves will be very vulnerable to hunting," Bangs says. "The states are going to have to be very cautious." He cites surveys that asked hunters questions about how many wolves they saw and how many they could have shot. "The number of guys who saw wolves and could have shot them was unbelievable," Bangs says. "And hey, we killed every last one of (the wolves) in the United States before, so they aren't that smart."
Others aren't so sure. "As many years as I've been out here hunting, I could only have shot one or two of them. They're just so fast," says Podsaid. "I think we can hunt them 24-7 all year long and not put a dent in the population unless we can trap them. And I admire them for that. But if you're in the business of the deer and elk hunting industry, it's just going to get smaller."
Craig agrees hunting is not enough. "I bet you my business they don't even come close to the quota," Craig says. "The way these wolves have gone out of control, it's too late.
They've created an impossible situation. These granolas (environmentalists) have tried for years to get us out of the woods. They've always wanted to restrict our use in these wilderness areas. They tried the spotted owls. Then came no timber cutting. Then came the wolves.
"My feeling now is that they have won. They found a damn good way to get us out of the woods. Because when there's no elk or deer, there's no hunting."