The Howling - Reflections on the Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Program and the Implications for Non-migratory Caribou and Elk
March 1, 2004

By Steven M. Busch

To submit a Letter to the Editor:

Caribou used to inhabit much of the northern border area between the United States and Canada, and as recently as the 1950s, were seen as far south as the Salmon River drainage in Idaho. All caribou are genetically identical. The woodland/mountain caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) are distinguished from their barren ground cousins solely by their choice of habitat.

While caribou are numerous throughout many parts of the world, the mountain, or woodland caribou, is protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act and is considered the "most threatened" of any large mammal species within the contiguous United States. The Selkirk Mountains, on the border between Washington State and north Idaho, are home to the last remaining herd of woodland/mountain caribou in the lower forty-eight states. The 2003 caribou census counted only 41 caribou in the Selkirk herd.

British Columbia is home to 98% of all remaining mountain caribou. The British Columbia Wildlife Branch reported that mountain caribou numbers plummeted from 2,450 in 1997 to 2,300 in 2000, and were down to just 1,850 animals in 2002. In the southern Purcell Mountains, the caribou population is comprised of just 18 individuals.

Why are these caribou numbers rapidly declining, despite intense management efforts from Canadian and U.S. authorities? The Selkirk caribou herd must maintain a population between 200 and 400 animals, to be considered viable. Some 113 caribou were imported from Canada to bolster the Idaho Selkirk herd between 1987 and 1998. Dozens more caribou have been transplanted over the last few years, in further attempts to strengthen the dwindling herd.

Preservationist organizations touting their own agenda like to put the blame on heli-skiers, snowmobile users, mining activities, old growth logging, etc. Yet, none of these activities have been shown to have a significant impact on caribou mortality.

During the 1990s a significant increase in the cougar population in the Selkirk mountains was noted by wildlife managers. Cougars were documented as inflicting a higher than sustainable mortality rate on the local Selkirk caribou herd. Idaho Department of Fish and Game wildlife managers enacted a "cougar reduction program" in an effort to reduce predation on the caribou. The strategy was considered somewhat successful, as the local caribou herd mortality rate declined while more new transplants were added to the herd.

In British Columbia the woodland/mountain caribou have been severely depressed, primarily by wolf predation. Caribou/wolf population dynamics have been well documented by Canadian biologists. In Canada, wildlife managers are using a variety of control strategies to reduce wolf predation. The Forty Mile Caribou Herd Management Team Wolf Predation Control Implementation Plan outlines "acceptable" non-lethal techniques:

    "Males will be vasectomized using either surgical or chemical techniques; females will be tubally ligated if ongoing studies in the Yukon indicate this is feasible and safe; surgical sterilization will be conducted by a qualified veterinary surgeon; and other techniques proven to be more effective and humane may be used after review by the Fortymile Caribou Management Team and approval."

This very expensive, labor intensive approach has not been shown to be effective in the field. Caribou numbers continue to decline rapidly. Canadian predator control programs continue to eat up a large percentage of the wildlife management budget. Wildlife managers, on both sides of the border, know full well the devastating effects predators, particularly wolves, can have on a static non-migratory ungulate herd.

Gray wolves coming across the U.S. border into the Cascade and Selkirk mountain ranges, as well as wolves moving into the area from packs established in Montana, are under Federal protection. U.S. wildlife managers can do nothing but watch helplessly as wolves are clearly decimating non-migratory populations of ungulates (elk, moose, caribou) on this side of the border.

Meanwhile, so-called "wolf experts" here in the states have testified that elk, like caribou, are genetically well adapted to wolf predation, and that the natural prey/predator cycle should be allowed to run its course. They argue that "historically" caribou and elk populations have rebounded quite well, even under continual predation pressure by wolves. Ed Bangs, the USFWS Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Coordinator, stated in a recent Field and Stream magazine interview that "if wolves were going to wipe out the elk, they would have done so 10,000 years ago."

My question for Mr. Bangs is this: If caribou and elk are genetically equipped to survive wolf predation, then what went wrong in north Idaho, and what is going wrong in various parts of Canada? What does this mean for the elk population in central Idaho, where wolves are now reproducing and devouring elk at an astonishing rate?

The cold hard facts are spelled out by the caribou experts at the Columbia Mountains Institute of Applied Ecology in Revelstoke, British Columbia:

    "Caribou migrations that spatially separate caribou from wolves allow relatively high densities of caribou to survive. Non-migratory caribou that live in areas where wolf populations are sustained by alternate prey can be eliminated by wolf predation."

Translation: Caribou herds that migrate and disperse to remote areas can effectively survive wolf predation. The isolated Selkirk caribou herd is an example of a herd that simply cannot "spatially separate" itself enough from predators to insure its continued survival.

The Selkirk Caribou herd did, in fact, respond to genetic cues and move up to higher elevations during winter to escape predation. However, predators (cougars and wolves) were able to stay in the area, subsisting on alternate prey (moose and deer) which they found in sufficient numbers in the lower valleys, until they could once again access the caribou.

Few elk historically winter in Yellowstone, or in the higher elevations, where deep snow and severe winters make foraging difficult. Don Cushman of the Fish and Wildlife Service at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming, explains that vast herds of elk historically migrated down off of the Yellowstone Plateau and the surrounding mountains and headed south at least 250 miles to winter in the high plains near Rock Springs, Wyoming.

Again, historically speaking, by migrating long distances, the elk herds, like their cousins the caribou, were able to "spatially separate" themselves for significant periods of time from their main predator, the wolf. Some wolves undoubtedly followed the elk herds on their migrations, but most stayed in their home territories and began preying on alternate species. When faced with wolf predation, migration is really the only genetic factor in the elk (or caribou's) favor.

In the United States, migration onto the plains is restricted by cattle ranching, agriculture, highways, and both rural and urban development. Elk herds are, in effect, living year round on millions of acres of well protected summer range. The wolf was removed as a predator from these ranges, in part, to protect the integrity of what are, essentially, non-migratory herds.

The National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming, was developed to assist the elk in surviving without migration, primarily by offering late winter feed in a protected area on their historic summer range. This is the same rationale behind the numerous elk winter feeding stations in Idaho and elsewhere. Without these winter feeding stations and protected habitats, elk populations would certainly decline, even without wolf predation.

The bottom line is that wolf packs re-introduced into Yellowstone and Idaho prey on elk that have limited migration capabilities or opportunities. For the wolf, it is like shooting fish in a barrel, especially during winter.

Wildlife managers expect a rapid decline in ungulate herds, and lament they have no definitive answers. In fact, they understand that all other predators (except wolves) will need to be reduced or eliminated, or else the ungulate population (elk, deer, and moose) is in serious jeopardy.

The likely scenario would be maintaining elk herds by managing hunters and predators other than wolves, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act. We have to compensate by managing those other species. Adjusting populations of lions, bears, and elk hunters will allow us to compensate for wolf impacts in some units.

The idea of eliminating all other predators to make up for wolf predation on elk (or caribou) populations contains serious flaws, and does not solve the problem. To continue to deny that there is a serious problem at all flies in the face of all the evidence.

This is an artificially manufactured crisis engineered by environmentalist extremists actively lobbying and working through our federal government. They do, in fact, have a solution already mapped out. The logic behind the wolf re-introduction plan, and all other native species legislation, is spelled out in a long term ecosystem-centered management plan called the "Wildlands Project".

In order to insure that ungulate populations survive the onslaught of the re-introduction of wolves into our western states, it will soon be very clear to all concerned, that "connecting corridors" must be established in order to facilitate migration between historic summer and winter ranges. New vast winter ranges must be made available in order to allow the full migratory habits of elk (also caribou and buffalo) to be reconstituted.

President Bush's 2004 budget proposal calls for 1.3 billion dollars for the USFWS. This budget includes huge increases for continued "native species recovery" efforts and law enforcement. Huge new wilderness bills are waiting for Congressional approval. If you own a ranch, or a farm, or even a business that is near a wolf re-introduction zone, or is in the way of some wildlife "connecting corridor," you are an endangered species.