Idaho Elk: A Perfect Storm Of Polemics

In pitting the polemics of two different views against each other, sometimes the truth seems to be lost, sifted carelessly down to the ground between the two poles.

Talk to ranchers and sportsmen, and you'll quickly find that they want every wolf in the world dead. Incidentally, I'm pretty much on board with that. I've never been a canine fan anyway. I see wolves as just overgrown coyotes, i.e. - nuisances.

Now, of course, I don't want every wolf in the world dead. I just want the ones that were introduced into Idaho by the federal government to be dead, gone, poof. Why? Well, we had wolves in the past, but we annihilated them effectively with a bounty program. We did that because we did not want them around, plain and simple. They were nuisances to ranchers, sportsmen, and the general public. We didn't want wolves any more than we wanted cockroaches. That's true for today too.

But the polemics of sportsmen often include the argument that the wolves are entirely to blame for the state's declining elk herds, at least, and they may say it includes moose and deer as well. And the facts are there if you look at the numbers. At the same time wolves were introduced and becoming established in Idaho, Idaho's elk herd populations plummeted, especially in the areas where the wolves were given their new homes. Clearly, then, wolves are the cause of the evil.

For instance, in 1989 the Lolo Zone in North-Central Idaho held somewhere nears 17,000 head of elk. Today, that number is less than 2,500. Wolf packs there are what the IF&G would call "well established."

On the other pole, environmentalists and wolf-lovers argue that the wolves do such an insignificant predation on the elk there, that it hardly deserves mentioning, and their polemics throw accusations at those who say otherwise. Ranchers and sportsmen are just ignorant when it comes to environmental and ecological issues. In fact, most of them probably wonder if ranchers and sportsman even know what "ecological" means; it is a big word, after all.

The truth is that a lot of the sportsmen I talk to, while they may know some principles of ecology, don't know how bad the habitat just so happens to be in the same areas where the elk populations have declined dramatically. The Lolo, the Selway, and much of North Idaho, places where wolves are "well established," also have some of the worst elk habitat in the state.

It hasn't always been that way, though. Massive forest fires earlier in the 20th Century created excellent habitat in those places. And current fire suppression management activities by the Forest Service have helped to prevent that from happening again. So can we just blame everything on the federal government? Sure, I'm fine with that, but I digress.

The bottom line is that there is a perfect storm of factors that has led to declining elk populations in Idaho. It's not just one factor - wolves, or another - habitat loss. It's both. And both sides in the debate would do well to drop their strict polemics and realize that.

~ J. Bunch

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