Guest blog by: James “Mike” Laughlin
(Retired) Supervisory Wildlife Biologist, Animal Damage Control – U.S Department of Agriculture & U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Bachelor Science Degree – Wildlife Biology – Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, 31 years working in 9 Western states, Mexico, Provinces of Canada, Professional big game guide and outfitter in Colorado for 17 years
After hearing reports of no elk and lots of wolves in Yellowstone Park, we decided to go look for ourselves. During the week of August 25 – 30, 2011 we packed our binoculars and spotting scopes and left Nevada headed for Yellowstone Park.
In January 1995, U.S. and Canadian wildlife officials captured 14 wolves from multiple packs east of Jasper National Park, near Hinton, Alberta, Canada. In March 1995, the 14 wolves in two packs were turned loose in Yellowstone.
Seventeen additional wolves captured in Canada were released into the park in April 1996. Officials believed that the natural reproduction and survival were sufficient to preclude additional releases. According to the National Park Service, at the end of 2010, at least 97 wolves (11 packs and 6 loners) occupied Yellowstone National Park. The Druid Pack in Lamar Valley, at one time, had over 30 wolves running together in a pack.
The main reason, according to the National Park Service, that these Canadian wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone was researchers suggested that the elimination of major predators from the Park had allowed the elk population to explode and they had over-browsed the aspen and willows thus causing damage to stream sites from erosion and loss of beaver and songbird habitat.
In 1973, the grey wolf was listed as an endangered species. From this original Canadian wolf transplant in 1995, the wolves have multiplied throughout Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana and have reached into Oregon, Washington and beyond. It has been found that an expanding population of wolves may increase 30% a year.
Mortallity factors influencing wolf population since 1995 are mange, in-fighting between packs, road kills, and wolves killed by Animal Damage Control in response to confirmed livestock kills. According to National Park Service reports, it appears that the wolf population has stablilized in Yellowstone in 2010.
Let it be understood that the Canadian wolves (Canis lupus occidentalis) that were introduced are a different sub-species than the grey “buffalo” wolves (Canis lupus irremotus) that were indigenous in the United States and some came from as far north as Fort St. John, British Columbia. The Canadian wolves are as much as 30% larger animals and they tend to run in larger packs. This makes them much more successful in taking down large prey such as bull elk and adult bison. Canadian wolves tend to a solid black or grey color. They can weigh up to 150 pounds. They have very large feet, the average being 4 inches wide by 5 inches long. They can run up to 35 miles per hour for a short distance. Pack territory size varies with location. In the US it is between 25 and 150 square miles.
So, what did we see in three days in Yellowstone? We saw very few elk. We heard no elk bugle. We saw one calf elk and no elk with horns. We saw no deer, no moose, no pronghorns, no bighorn sheep, and three coyotes. However, we did see two packs of wolves (7 in each pack including pups and several adults). We saw two bunches of elk. One herd came out of the trees at about 10:30 am running for their lives out across a sagebrush meadow. We did not see the wolves that were chasing them but there is good chance that is why they were running away. The other herd was milling around on high alert in an open meadow with a herd of buffalo in mid-afternoon on the edge of Teton National Park.
We did see a large number of buffalo. The wolves had killed an adult buffalo near Canyon and we saw wolves feeding on this kill the next day when we got there.
There was talk that the wolves are killing more buffalo because the elk, deer, moose, and bighorn sheep numbers continue to decline. The US Fish and Wildlife service says that elk comprise up to 92% of the winter diet of Yellowstone wolves, and estimate the overall kill rates of Yellowstone wolves on elk to be 22 ungulates per wolf annually. Grizzly bears are following the wolves and taking over their kills. Wolves evidently cannot fight off the grizzlies at a kill, leave, and go on to kill again. Grizzly numbers have reportedly increased to over a thousand individuals in the Yellowstone Park ecosystem. During our trip, a grizzly killed a lone hiker five miles from the trailhead west of Hayden Valley. When you see more wolves from the road than coyotes, there is a good chance you may have more wolves than coyotes!
After three days of looking and glassing, we came out the south entrance of the Park and continued on to our friends’ ranch south of Moose, Wyoming. When we drove onto the ranch there were five large bull elk lying in the hayfield next to the main house. We asked our friends how long these elk had been here. They said, “Oh, they have been here all summer. They never go far.” Why do you suppose these large bull elk were camped near the house? I would guess to stay alive and keep away from the wolves.
If you think for one minute that the introduction of Canadian Wolves was simply to protect aspens, stream banks and songbird habitat, guess again. These introduced wolves are being used to end sport hunting and livestock grazing as we know it throughout the west. There a number of organizations such as Western Water Shed, Defenders of Wildlife, etc. that are against sport hunting and livestock grazing. Why not use the wolf to help put an end to sport hunting and grazing by increased wolf depredations upon livestock and depletion of our big game herds?
What is the answer to this large problem? There is none. In a period from 1883 to 1917, more than 100,000 wolves were killed for bounty in Montana and Wyoming. All types of control tools were used during this period and wolves were killed in Yellowstone Park as well. Now we are down to hunting with a rifle, no hunting in National Parks, and more rules and regulations than you can read. Looks like the wolves will have it their way from here on out. If you put together all of the livestock owners, outfitters, motel owners, grocery stores, etc, that the 1995 wolf introduction has had an impact upon, it would be a large list and it is growing. As one old timer said when the wolves were put in the Park, “This is like putting mice in a cheese factory.” Well said!