My Kindgom for some Elk

I've got a lot of respect for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, especially since they’ve taken on the welfare groups who takepublicly owned wildlife to fund their operations. I applaud their decision to oppose HR 1581, the anti-elk, and anti-hunter Wilderness and Roadless Area Release Act.

I don’t always agree with them on the management of large carnivores, but it’s a difference of degrees.

Mark Holyoak, communications director for RMEF just had apiece in the Missoulian talking about the need to scientifically manage wolves. That includes trapping. To be clear, I personally don’t have a problem with trapping as a management tool, and I think that allowing trappers to take three wolves is fair, conservative and a mechanism that was provided for by the Montana Wolf Management Plan. So I totally agree with RMEF on that. I also agree that we need to use every tool we have to grow more elk. I don’t agree with portions of the Wolf Hunt approved by the Commission as I think it’s too broad, and doesn’t focus harvest in specific areas where we truly need to manage wolves. Furthermore, trapping around Yellowstone is going to come back and bite us on the butt. The first time a named, collared wolf is trapped outside the Park, we’ll see a renewed effort to eliminate trapping on all public lands, and this time, the anti-hunting community might just get it.

Mark used a number of bullet points to drive home his point. However, I don’t think it’s right to use anecdotal evidence as a background for declaring that wolves have eliminated hunting opportunity, especially when the issue is much more complex than just wolves, lions or bears.

But what we’re really talking about is Elk. Specifically - elk abundance.  The course of action laid out by RMEF lacks two critical components as they relate to how to grow more elk.

The first missing piece in Mark’s well written opinion is legislative interference. According to the Montana State Legislature, Montana needs to kill 22,000 more elk just to come into compliance with a short sighted law that was passed in 2003 – HB 42. That law says that FWP has to manage at or below objective. While that may or may not be a contributing factor in all elk herds, it is indicative of the mindset our legislature has when it comes to conserving elk habitat. In 2011, there were repeated attempts to eliminate funding for conservation programs like Habitat Montana, to get rid of Federal Public Lands, and to eliminate the voice of the people in FWP Commission decisions.How will the elimination of our ability to conserve elk winter range serve hunters and more importantly, elk, in the future? 

Combine that with a rapidly outdated elk plan that focuses primarily on social tolerance rather than the biological needs of elk in a predator rich environment. The fact remains that you cannot manage any wildlife species on a straight line. Objectives were set at low levels to accommodate the real and recognized desire of landowners to reduce forage consumption on private land, rather than what the actual carrying capacity is for elk. We’re managing for the bottom of the curve before we even start to consider wolves, bears and the most effective predator – us.

As my friend Randy Newberg often says, “We could kill every wolf, lion, and bear in Montana, and we’d still have an elk problem.” That’s the truth. It’s also RMEF’s mission to conserve elk habitat. They’ve been hugely successful in accomplishing that mission with over 6 million acres conserved. There are more elk in this country now than there were 40 years ago, largely due in part to the efforts of the Elk Foundation.

The second missing piece is habitat. Specifically, habitat productivity. We see elk down on irrigated bottoms year round. Lots of folks think that’s because of wolves – okay, sure, partially. But look at it from the perspective of an elk’s stomach: They can either eat high protein, nutrient rich crops, or they can eat poorer quality range grass (which is getting poorer by the year). The quality of habitat on public lands is diminishing. 

You can see that starting to come through in the Bitterroot Elk Study when we look at cow elk body conditions, and we are seeing it in places like the Crandall/Sunlight areas of Wyoming. Body condition, nutritional content of available forage, and yes, wolves, all play a part in what is going on with elk in the west.

Let’s face it, we want more elk, specifically in western Montana, where we’ve seen some herds crash. We also want some sensible management of elk beyond depredation hunts and overhunting. Take the upper Blackfoot for example: Folks are screaming that wolves are killing all the elk, yet we still shoot the hell out of cow elk when they get on private land, late in the winter. See a problem here? We allowed for excessive opportunity of elk harvest in places like the West Fork of the Bitterroot and denied our game managers the ability, and the political backbone, to cancel those. Same goes for the Gardiner Gut Hunt.

The North American Model was set up to try to reduce political influence in wildlife management. Unfortunately, it’s not working that way. Wildlife management is now one of the most politicized issues out there. Over 250 bills that would have either negatively affected wildlife, the public opportunity or wildlife habitat management were introduced in the 2011 Legislature.

Here’s the real predator: People who put their own selfish interests ahead of what’s right for wildlife and people.

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