Things were pretty good the first year Drew Johnson and a group of friends hunted elk in Montana’s Gallatin National Forest. He arrowed a 4×5 bull near the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park in 2000, but things went down hill the next season.
“Every time we tried cow calling or bugling, we called in wolves. We saw quite a few elk carcasses, and we heard wolves howling around us every night,” recalls Johnson, a Farmville, Virginia, dentist. “We never saw an elk.”
He and his friends moved to a different part of Montana and had a few good years before the wolves eventually caught up to them again. The elk disappeared, so last fall Johnson and his friends booked a hunt with a New Mexico outfitter, a move they plan to make permanent.
“I’m not going back to Montana,” he says.
Johnson isn’t alone. Hunters are abandoning some parts of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, turning their attention instead to wolf-free states. The number of non-resident elk hunters traveling to Idaho was down 23 percent in 2011, and for the first time in 30 years, Montana did not sell all of its non-resident elk licenses during the general drawing in 2012.
No wonder. As wolf populations have increased, big-game numbers spiraled downward. There is no better example than the elk herd north of the Yellowstone border, the same region Johnson used to hunt. Land that once had 19,000 animals in 1995 now holds less than 4,000.
Elk numbers in other wolf territories are experiencing similar declines, despite assurances from some pro-wolf groups that the predators would only prey on the sick and weak. Turns out, they are taking a huge toll on elk calves, too. Cow-to-calf ratios in some parts of Montana have fallen to as low as 11 calves per 100 cows, a number too low to maintain current populations. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks cut the number of elk licenses in some units as a result.
Despite populations six times above the minimum recovery goal of 300 wolves and despite their devastating impact on wildlife and hunting, some anti-hunting organizations still aren’t satisfied. An attorney representing Earthjustice recently requested the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) allow the region’s wolf population to grow as high as 5,000 animals. A single wolf can kill up to 35 elk per year.
The Service balked, but even after several hunting seasons with increasing quotas and bag limits, the northern Rocky Mountain wolf population has declined only slightly from a record 1,800 animals.
Wolf populations are booming in the Great Lakes, too. They were removed from the Endangered Species List in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota in 2011, and all three states have held at least one hunt since then. An estimated 3,700 wolves live in the northern Great Lakes region.