Wolves. Simply put, wolves may be the single, most debated topic in big game management, hunting, and environmentalism currently. Pro-wolf, anti-wolf, conservationist, environmentalist, sportsman, or politician… they all have their stances and theories on wolves and their impact and place in the ecosystem. No matter what your stance is though, you would be completely ignorant to refute the fact the wolves do change the environmental eco system, the question is wether it is for better or worse.
First off, I don’t want this to turn into a political or social rant on what I or anyone else thinks about wolves and their place. If anyone else is like me, they may also be a tad bit burnt out from the overdone wolf talk and dramatization on both sides of the argument. What I do want to mull over for a bit though, is how wolf presence changes cognitive decision making processes in elk behavior. It is statistically said that 92 percent of wolf kills in most of the western US are made up of elk. Intuitively then, elk have a fairly large interest in what these predators are doing, and how they can most effectively evade predation.
This evening I read an interesting article that I chose out of the stack entitled “Habitat Selection by Elk Before and After Wolf Reintroduction in Yellowstone National Park.” The paper was published in The Journal of Wildlife Management in 2005. In the paper the authors discuss some significant changes in elk habitat selection in elk herds studied both before and after the introduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park. As a hunter, I think the introduction of wolves has to be learned from, in order to more effectively understand changing elk behavior. Ignoring this change in the game would be like playing a game of basketball but ignoring a rule change that permits traveling with the ball. Wolves are influencing elk habitat selection, and not taking note of the manner in which it is occurring only puts you at a disadvantage.
I had a few theories after the last two elk seasons here in Oregon where wolves are becoming more prevalent in the areas that I like to elk hunt. Some of the theories in this paper not only support themselves statistically, but also support observations that I have personally been seeing in the field. To keep this brief, I won’t be discussing the entire length of this 18 page publication, but rather I simply want to highlight a couple points that I found key.
I am a mainly an archery hunter, meaning my search of elk occurs on their summer range. The study performed in the above mentioned article found a significant change in elk summer habitat selection in terms vegetation cover and elevation. Elk were found to rely more heavily on area of high concealment and cover, namely past wildfire burns. These burns not only provide heavy vegetation concealment, but also provide an area rarely travelled by wolves. The nature of wolf hunting lends itself to long distance travel, and burned forests encompass large quantities of blowdown, which is energetically taxing on wolf locomotion. Elk also had a tendency to trend towards elevations above areas frequented by wolves. Summer months involve the rearing of pups around the dens in which they were born during the spring. These dens are located in lower elevation where snowpack was mild in the spring months, and therefore wolves must return to these dens on a consistent basis, limiting their travel into higher altitudes.
Both of these changes in habitat selection reveal an effort of elk herds to distance themselves from the highest concentrations of wolf activity during the summer months. While I have lacked any real time in the field recently in good burned timber areas, I can attest for an increasing number of elk sightings in areas above what I would have typified as elk habitat in the past.
The paper goes into great detail on many facets of elk habitat selection both before and after wolf reintroduction. To those who are interested in learning more I would highly recommend reading this article if you can get your hands on it. It is well constructed and very thorough in discussing both reasons for these changes due to wolves, as well as other environmental factors.