We have always heard discussions about our deer, moose and elk and what effects loss of habitat has and the presence of wild animal predators, namely wolves, mountain lions and bears. We all know that both habitat and predation are important factors in the survivability of our wild ungulate populations everywhere. The question is or at least should be, is there a major difference between the negative affects of the two on our deer, moose and elk, enough to be concerned about anyway?
I read all the time about how predators have little or no substantial affect on deer, elk or moose. Is this true?
I read how it is hunters who kill more of these animals than do predators. Is this true?
I am always reading about how it is habitat that has a greater affect on mortality rates than does predation. Is this true?
In the discussion of wolf predation in the three states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming and in particular south central Idaho, I hear how drought is what’s killing off the mule deer population. Is this true?
I also hear that large herds of elk are eating up all the plant life and as a result of decimating the plant life elk populations are declining. Is this true?
I hear that more deer die each year from natural causes than predators kill in a year. Is this true?
In the December 2005 – January 2006 edition of The Outdoorsman, Bulletin Number 16, pages 13,14 and 15, editor George Dovel, received permission from the Mule Deer Foundation to republish an article written by Dr. Charles E. Kay. You can read the entire article here.(pdf) Here’s a bit about Dr. Kay.
(Charles Kay has a PhD in wildlife ecology from Utah State University and is an adjunct professor and senior environmental scholar there. As a researcher in the Northern Rocky Mountains for 2O-plus years, his 1993 predictions concerning the number of wolves, their impact on game, and de-listing delays have all come true. If you enjoy hunting mule deer, please read this carefully.
Dr. Kay examines through collected data and research, what effects loss of habitat and predation has had specifically on mule deer but also talks at length about how this all stacks up against elk and moose.
Let’s first put into perspective the number of mule deer killed by just one predator, the mountain lion. Dr. Kay quietly estimates there to be approximately 36,000 mountain lions living within mule deer habitat in the west. Let’s do some math.
A number of researchers have estimated how many deer-sized ungulates a single lion will kill every year and, on average about 50 prey animals must die to feed one cat. Thus, in total, mountain lions are killing 1.8 million ungulates each year. Of that number, approximately 1.2 million are mule deer.
Dr. Kay verified his figures with another wildlife professor who concurred.
Kay further looks at how hunter harvest numbers have changed over the years compared to predator numbers. He says that in 1960, hunters across the west harvested 21% of the mule deer in the fall. Today (at the time of the article published in 2006) that harvest percentage is 9%.
In Alaska, biologists say that in areas where there are a lot of predators, only 5% of moose can be taken by hunters. If we compare those figures with areas of no predation, like Scandinavia, hunters can easily take 55% of the population each year without having any affect on the herd management goals.
All these figures are well and good and animal rights groups, particularly wolf advocates because of the federal protection on them in the lower 48 states, don’t much care that hunters aren’t getting the opportunities they once had to take these elk, deer and moose. Even though most states are mandated by law and commission the fish and game departments to manage game animals to provide hunting opportunities, this doesn’t seem to deter lawsuits and consequently hunters are the ones suffering because of it.
In states that have constitutional protection, recognizing that it is a right to hunt, trap and fish, it at least deters the lawsuits. Dr. Kay points out in this article that no animal rights group has ever successfully overturned a state constitutional amendment protecting hunting, fishing and trapping. Any changes to stop the sports, require a 2/3 majority vote.
So, these figures are interesting and clearly show us what most of us probably suspected anyway. That predators kill a lot of ungulates each year. But what about that shrinking habitat? Isn’t that having a bigger negative impact on these animals?
Doesn’t it only make sense that if we can produce a greater habitat for let’s say deer, that we will have more deer and conversely if we reduce habitat, deer die off or will not reproduce in sufficient numbers? That’s always been the formula hasn’t it?
According to Dr. Kay, in a study that appeared in the scientific journal “Ecology”, a publication of the Ecological Society of America, showed that improving habitat for moose did very little to increase numbers.
In Alaska, where the Department of Fish and Game has conducted predator-prey research for many years, and where moose are the principal prey and wolves and grizzlies the main predators, Dr. Ward Tesla recently concluded: From a management perspective, methods that improve range conditions, and by extension moose productivity, have limited potential to reverse the decline of moose numbers when compared to measures that reduce predation.
There are other such cases that show the same thing. Banff and Jasper National Parks in the central Canadian Rockies have some of the most “spectacular wildlife habitat in North America”, says Dr. Kay but today there is very little game due to predation. Animals are not hunted in these parks.
Dr. Kay has taken four extended horseback trips into the wilderness of Banff and Jasper to study the lack of ungulates. He says that unlike the National Parks in the United States, park officials in Canada speak openly of how predation is wiping out elk, deer and moose populations.
There are other areas to make comparisons. Yellowstone is one such place. Dr. Kay talks of the money and effort put into the restoration and improvement of elk habitat in that region, yet numbers continue on the decline. Where once as many as 4,000 elk permits were issued in the Gallatin and Yellowstone River areas, today there are none.
To appreciate the magnitude of the problem look at Colorado. Here is a state that has neither wolves nor grizzlies as this is written.
At last report there were approximately 300,000 elk in Colorado, which is three times more elk than exist in all of Canada! In addition, prior to wolf reintroduction there were more elk in the Yellowstone ecosystem than all of Canada!
Canada has some great wildlife habitat but hunting is definitely better in Colorado where hunters took home nearly 70,000 elk last fall. More elk were killed in Colorado and Wyoming last fall than exist in all Canada!
And let’s not forget about drought conditions and how wolf advocates are saying that in Idaho it’s the drought that’s killing off the mule deer and any affects being seen in elk and moose herds has to be the drought as they insist that predation has no effect.
To answer this question we need to look at some Arizona data. Based on tree-ring evidence, Arizona has experienced the worst drought in the last 700 to 1,000 years and the fawn to doe ratio in Game Management 22 dropped to only 18 fawns per 100 does in 2002.
Drought right? Well, not exactly. Inside a predator-proof enclosure that Arizona Game and Fish has maintained on the Three-Bar watershed since 1970, there were 100 fawns per 100 does! In addition, mule deer density inside the predator-proof enclosure was ten times “higher” than where predators held sway.
Drought may make deer more susceptible to predation, but predators do most of the actual killing. Over the last 35 years, does inside the enclosure have, on average, produced 225o/o more fawns than mule deer outside the fenced area.
For those who may be wondering if this same information can apply to whitetail deer as compared to mule deer, Dr. Kay shows in studies that for whatever the reasons, whitetail deer more easily adapt to eluding predators but not to the point we can say that predation has no effect on whitetail deer.
This is an interesting article combined with research that should make wildlife biologists take another look at where they are expending their efforts in deer, moose and elk management. Just today, I wrote an article about Maine’s efforts to do something about coyote predation on that state’s whitetail deer herd in northern Maine. As the article stated, the majority of the discussion with the legislative committee to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, was centered around trying to find ways to improve the habitat and little to do with reducing coyote numbers.