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University of Montana professor Mark Hebblewhite knows all about the interaction between wolves and their prey.

For more than a decade, Hebblewhite tracked elk, caribou and moose in the wilds of Canada to research just that.

On Monday night he offered an overview of what he'd learned to a packed house of about 160 at Hamilton's Bitterroot River Inn during a talk hosted by the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association.

Those hoping for a glimmer that someday elk numbers might rebound to something close to the record populations found in the Bitterroot before wolves came on the scene most likely left disappointed.

Hebblewhite's take home message was simple and direct.

Wolves are here to stay and elk are on the menu. Hunters can't shoot their way out of it. In places where good elk habitat is sparse, elk numbers could take a big hit.

There will be some benefits too for things like willow and aspen regeneration, which could help critters like beaver and song birds.

"I'm sure it wasn't the message that people wanted to hear," said Tony Jones, president of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association. "We've lived through the good old days (of elk hunting opportunity) and it's doubtful that it will ever come back."

Hebblewhite has seen what's happening in the Bitterroot Valley with elk and wolves before.

Wolves arrived in the Bitterroot just about the same time the elk herd was peaking at record numbers.

The Bitterroot elk herd can trace its roots back to a 1912 reintroduction of about 100 animals by some of the first members of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association. Following decades of management focused on growing the elk population, it topped out somewhere near 8,100 around 2005.

That truly was the good old days for elk hunters in the valley.

With plenty of prey, wolf numbers in the Bitterroot grew faster than what many had predicted following the 1995 reintroduction efforts. Today there are somewhere between 12 and 15 known packs of wolves in the mountains surrounding the Bitterroot.

Elk numbers have plummeted in some hunting districts, especially in the West Fork of the Bitterroot.

The same thing happened in and around Banff when wolves began migrating into the area in the mid 1980s.

Before wolves arrived, elk numbers were managed by the carrying capacity of the habitat. If the herd grew too large for the limited range, elk starved.

"Banff is a crummy place to be an elk," Hebblewhite said.

With plentiful prey, wolf numbers grew dramatically at first and elk numbers dropped just about as quick. The elk population around Banff declined about 80 percent after wolves came back on the scene.

As the prey base declined, so did the wolf population.

"Wolves overshot their carrying capacity in Banff," Hebblewhite said.

That same thing could well be happening in the Bitterroot.

In Banff today, wolf and elk numbers have stabilized at lower levels.

With wolves in a natural system, there are obviously going to be fewer elk, Hebblewhite said.

The seemingly logical solution to declining elk numbers is to simply kill the wolves.

But, Hebblewhite said it's not that easy.

The best wolf control study ever done occurred in the Yukon. With a caribou herd in decline, the state decided to dramatically reduce the wolf population in one region and leave another alone.

Over a three year period, the wolf population was reduced between 60 to 80 percent. Researchers saw an increase in caribou and moose immediately after the control actions, but just two years after the wolf killings stopped, wolf numbers rebounded back to normal.

The state spent $2 million to learn that wolf control wasn't the long term solution, Hebblewhite said. Considering the current legal limbo surrounding the management of wolves, that kind of control action could never happen in Montana.

"It's a little more of a challenge than just shooting more wolves," he said. "It's really a battle between humans with different values."

Considering the fact that studies have shown that elk and other ungulates do fare much better in places with good habitat, Hebblewhite said it is possible that both sides of the fence could find common ground.

"That is something that could unite the different factions," he said. "Restored habitat is what elk need to survive."

Jones said Bitterroot sportsmen are trying to be proactive by working with the state to cut back on the elk harvest and look for ways to slow the downward trends.

It's not an easy pill to swallow.

"We had a lot of elk and the herds were doing good," Jones said. "We had a taste of it and everybody wants it back, but I don't think it will.

"It's sad, but I think the best we can do is try to halt the slide," he said.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Bitterroot-based biologist, Craig Jourdonnais, said when the meeting ended, one word came to mind - change.

"I think it's probably way more than what people really want," he said. "But it's here. I think it was a great thing that happened last night. It was a great community service. The thing that continues to impress me more than anything about the people who live in this community is their thirst for good information."

A well informed populace is what's needed to move the process forward and work toward finding good solutions.

Jourdonnais knows people were discouraged that the valley's elk herd will probably never be the same.

"I do want people to know that the agency is not going to walk away from the hunting traditions that people have in this valley," he said. "We are going to work together with people here to find what works and what doesn't."

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Editor Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or editor@ravallirepublic.com.

 

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