Wyoming elk and moose population in decline–hunting, wolves identified as causes | TSLN.com

Wyoming elk and moose population in decline–hunting, wolves identified as causes

Tamara Choat
for Tri-State Livestock News

Like a century-long chess game, the strategic moves and countermoves of managing livestock, wild game and predators on common ground continues.

It's not simply black against white; there are more than two sides. A multitude of players include state and federal agencies, legislators, ranchers, sportsmen and conservation groups, anti-sportsmen and anti-ranching groups, private citizens and more – all playing with and against each other at times.

Earlier this month in Jackson, Wyo., the Wyoming Game and Fish released numbers on the official annual tally of the Jackson Hole elk herd. Total elk counted were 10,016, with an adjusted total population (not yet released) likely to come in between 10,300 and 10,500. At that range, this year will be the lowest estimated population since 1986. The highest year was in 1991, with 21,200 elk.

Those lower numbers have some groups – particularly those who depend on big game for a living – more than concerned.

And they're crying wolf. Literally.

"The impact on wildlife from the introduction of wolves in the lower 48 in the late '90s is undeniable – no matter which way you look at it," said a representative for Eastmans' Hunting Journals, a hunting media company based in Powell, Wyo., in a statement provided to TSLN.

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"[Hunters and outdoorsmen] understand the importance of wildlife conservation as a generational heirloom to pass down. It's sportsman that built what we have (had) and the introduction of wolves (and other unregulated predator populations) has nearly decimated that effort in many areas."

According to Aly Courtemanch, wildlife biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish's office in Jackson, the agency acknowledges wolves have had an impact on elk numbers, since elk comprise the majority of the predators' diet year-round – but they're not the full story.

"The drop in the Jackson Elk Herd from a high of 21,000 elk in the early 1990s to around 11,000 in recent years has been mostly driven by intentional reduction through hunting seasons," said Courtemanch.

From 1993 to 2002, when liberal hunting seasons aimed to reduce the herd, the annual harvest was 2,300 to 4,300 elk. "In recent years we have changed hunting seasons to stabilize the herd at objective (which is currently 11,000 and set by the Wyoming Game and Fish with input from community) and harvest has been 1,000 – 1,500 elk annually," said Courtemanch. "Therefore, wolves certainly remove elk from the population, but hunting season structure has a larger impact on the overall herd numbers."

Still, it's not hard to make a different correlation. The drop in big game numbers mirrors the timeline of the introduction of the wolf almost identically. And it's not just elk disappearing. The moose herd is estimated to be in even more dire straits, with a population of only 400 against an objective of 3,600.

Ryan Benson is president and CEO of BigGame Forever, a sportsmen's group with the mission of restoring and protecting wildlife populations.

In an article posted on the BigGame Forever blog, Benson said, "Moose in Jackson Hole, Wyo., are in serious trouble. Before wolves were introduced into Yellowstone, there were 3,000 to 5,000 moose in Jackson. Today, less than 20 years after the experimental wolf introduction, there are less than 500 moose left. This is a true American conservation nightmare."

And in Wyoming, conservation and business go hand in hand – at least in the hunting sense.

In 2015, the total economic contribution of the big game industry was estimated to be $303.5 million. This is according to a study commissioned by the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association and produced by Southwick Associates. They also concluded big game hunters generated 3,100 Wyoming jobs in 2015, with 51 percent of those jobs created due to non-resident hunters.

The impact is big, but could be bigger if the wolf were managed and big game populations allowed to thrive. Such is the sentiment among the sportsmen community.

"Much like ranchers that work hard, very hard, to maintain their cattle ranches for their families only to see their profits literally eaten, the economic impact on state game agencies is tremendous too, though most won't admit it," said the Eastmans' representative. "The loss of license dollars is putting additional burden on already cash-strapped agencies. Who wants to hunt where there's no game?"

Certainly ranchers can empathize with their counterparts in the guiding and outfitting industry on this issue. They too have seen their livelihood stalked down and torn to pieces while they stand by, incapacitated to do anything.

The recovery goal for the wolf, agreed upon at reintroduction in 1995, was 300 wolves and 30 breeding pairs for at least three successive years. That objective was met in 2002, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, and recovery has continued to exceed expectation. As of December 31, 2015, there were at least 1,704 wolves in 282 packs (including 95 breeding pairs) in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Packs have also expanded into Oregon and Washington.

While ranchers' interests align more closley with the elk than with the wolves, the elk bring their own issues for domestic livestock. The spread of brucellosis continues to be an issue in the livestock industry. Neighboring states continue to grumble about elk feeding grounds being breeding grounds for disease. The Montana Senate recently passed a joint resolution 50-0 urging federal and state officials in Wyoming to stop feeding elk on winter range. The resolution noted potential loss of wildlife's natural instincts, environmental damage, and increased probability of disease transmission, including scabies, foot rot, brucellosis and chronic wasting disease, as well as the economic loss due to these diseases.

At the end of the day, the simple facts are elk numbers in the Jackson area are half of what they were in the early 1990s. The moose population has declined to what some people feel warrants them trading places with the wolf on the Endangered Species List.

To some this is ideal. To some, it's detrimental.

It depends on which chess piece you're moving.

Delisted for real?

They’re off again.

Ranchers and hunters in Wyoming can celebrate a preliminary victory. A U.S. appeals court ruling on March 3 takes the gray wolf back off the Endangered Species List. For now.

This follows an on-again, off-again cycle that has plagued Wyoming wildlife managers since 2012.

In 2012 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved delisting of the wolf in Wyoming, based upon numbers and a sound management plan presented by the state. Compared to neighboring Idaho and Montana, which began wolf hunts in 2009 and had final delisting in 2011, Wyoming had been the “lone wolf” without a FWS-approved management plan. The victory was short lived, however.

By 2014, environmental and radical conservation groups sued, and took the delisting to court. They won, with District Judge Amy Burman Jackson ruling the plan Wyoming put forth was not enforceable. The wolves were back on the list. This most recent appeal ruling overturns Jackson’s override – and two negatives equal a positive.

Ironically, as the FWS is overseen by the Secretary of the Interior, the ruling dated March 3 listed Secretary Zinke as the primary appellant. Although it’s unlikely he had any direct involvement with the case – having been approved as Secretary just two days prior – the tone is set for a pro-agriculture, pro-sportsmen culture at the Department of the Interior. Joining the FWS and the state of Wyoming on the appeal were the Safari Club and the National Rifle Association.

Also, in a different branch of the government, still in the works is federal legislation that would permanently delist the wolf without fear of legal repercussion in Wyoming, Michigan, Wisonsin and Minnesota. The bill is sponsored by U.S. Sens. Enzi and Barrasso, both of Wyoming. That legislation is currently in Congressional committee.

There is a chance the Defenders of Wildlife and their cohorts will appeal the recent court ruling. However, with several different trump cards ready to play, it looks like delisting is in hand for the Wyoming gray wolf.

And who can argue a successful recovery?

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