By Mike Koshmrl
Wyoming wildlife managers aim to kill more wolves in the Gros Ventre area in hopes of drawing some elk back into that river valley during winter.
Aerial and ground surveys from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department this year detected just 86 elk on the Gros Ventre’s three feed grounds and natural winter ranges, which is the lowest number on record.
The near-complete absence of elk in the Gros Ventre does not equate to a herd population that’s crashed — it’s where the herd goes in winter that has changed — but some state officials see the situation as a crisis. Game and Fish Deputy Chief of Wildlife Doug Brimeyer, a former Jackson region biologist, told his commissioners earlier this month that the wintertime elk exodus has been “emotional” for managers and others who have watched the changes.
“There has been some huge changes,” Brimeyer told the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission on March 14 in Cody. “I know a lot of our guys have lost sleep over this. And I know [for] the outfitters, too, and the public that have taken their kids hunting to this drainage, it’s a fairly emotional thing.”
Brimeyer was straight to the point when asked what he would like to see happen.
“We need to put some pressure on these wolf packs that are in there,” he said.
One conservationist who’s a regular elk hunter in the Gros Ventre said Game and Fish is using wolves as a “predetermined scapegoat” and instead should take a “science-based” look at the situation.
“Wyoming Game and Fish should look at the actual data instead of having a knee-jerk reaction to kill more wolves,” Chris Colligan, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s wildlife program coordinator, said in an interview. “There are a lot of questions. This population is at objective. We know that the elk return to that summer range and fall range based on the collar data. We have had two extreme polar-opposite winters that certainly [have] shifted elk distribution in ways we haven’t seen.
“I think those things should be looked at instead of just a cry to kill more wolves,” he said, “because time and again efforts to limit wolves to benefit ungulates have shown to be a waste of time and money.”
Game and Fish does not yet have a wolf hunting proposal on the table for 2018, but there was talk at the meeting of bringing a plan forward that would increase quotas in the drainage. During the last open season, from October through December, the quota of nine wolves in the two hunt areas split by the Gros Ventre River was met. Another lobo was poached.
A year ago there were three main wolf packs that roamed portions of the upper Gros Ventre: the Slate Creek, Togwotee and Lava Mountain packs, which numbered a combined 33 animals when last assessed. This winter the Gros Ventre’s wolves have been warring as they’ve followed elk, their main food source, out of the valley and into each other’s territories.
The state’s draft regulations for the fall 2018 hunt will likely come out in early April, after this year’s monitoring report is released.
Brian Nesvik, Game and Fish’s chief warden, said the state is considering lowering the total wolf population goal in the Game and Fish’s managed “trophy game area.”
“The opportunity we’ll have — and this is something we’ll likely take before the public — is reducing that objective below 160,” Nesvik told comissioners. “That’ll give us additional room. Our commitment is to 100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs and to manage for a certain number of wolves above that. Not a numerical gap, but just simply that we’ll manage for more wolves than 10 and 100.”
Game and Fish computations have found that 140 wolves are needed to “almost guarantee” that there are 10 wolf packs in Wyoming’s trophy game area and to stay in line with the federally imposed basement requirement. When the Equality State has had control over its lobos the population goal has been 160 in this area, which affords a 20-animal buffer.
A successful-then-overturned lawsuit that stripped Wyoming of its jurisdiction over wolves from 2014 to 2017 concerned that very issue: how many wolves above 100 animals and 10 breeding pairs are to be maintained. Colligan, whose employer was not a plaintiff in the litigation, said the environmental community will keep a close eye on the state’s plans.
“Wyoming’s only had management of wolves for a year,” he said, “and any increase of quota or attempts to limit the population below what they agreed on is going to be intensely scrutinized.”
Game and Fish no longer maintains official population objectives for different segments of the Jackson Elk Herd, but as recently as 2016 the agency sought 3,500 elk in the Gros Ventre. The winter population in the valley last reached that level in 2003. Then it steadily declined and of late has been in a free fall. There were 1,200 Gros Ventre elk estimated one winter ago, which was the lowest ever before this year’s 86 animals.
Commissioners peppered Brimeyer with questions about what became of those elk. He told them there’s “definitely been a reduction” in numbers, and said it’s unclear how many elk are returning to the Gros Ventre high country during summers and fall.
“When you got 7,000 elk in one spot and then 3,000 wintering out in different places, it’s really hard to tell,” Brimeyer said. “It’s such a melting pot. We don’t have a good feel for it.”
But Game and Fish’s own data says that elk that once wintered in the Gros Ventre, but now go elsewhere, do almost unanimously return to their summer grounds. Some 96 percent of the 62 Gros Ventre elk that have been tracked over the past five years have returned to their summer and fall ranges, according to the agency’s data.
Aly Courtemanch, Brimeyer’s successor as the Jackson regional wildlife biologist, said there’s “no evidence” to suggest there’s been a significant decline in summer Gros Ventre elk numbers.
The ratio of calves to cows — one gauge of population growth — has averaged about 20-to-100 in the Gros Ventre over the past five years, which is the same ratio in the Jackson Elk Herd as a whole, which has been stable. There has been “very low mortality” among the 62 cow elk the state has tracked up the Gros Ventre since 2011, she said, with just one wapiti killed by wolves, another by a hunter and a third by a mountain lion.
“I don’t think we have any strong evidence to say that a lot of elk, or more than normal, have died in the Gros Ventre in the last few years,” Courtemanch said. “And I don’t think we have any evidence that points to a significant population decline up there. We do have evidence that elk are wintering in completely different areas than they used to.”
Thirteen collared Gros Ventre wapiti were on the air this year when the herd left the valley, and they truly fanned out. Seven headed to the National Elk Refuge, two to Buffalo Valley, one to Dubois and one each to feed grounds in the Upper Green River and at Dell Creek near Bondurant.
Kelly resident and Gros Ventre Wilderness Outfitters owner Brian Taylor is among those who say the shifting distribution is a shame. The third-generation rancher, who’s an avowed wolf opponent, made the trek to Cody to implore the Game and Fish Commission to kill more lobos — and to take up the task on their own.
“I think you’re going to have to do something more drastic than sport hunting,” Taylor said. “I’m all for increasing the quota, but after what I saw this fall I think if you set the quota at 20 wolves, and I’m being really conservative there, I don’t think you’d meet the objective.”
Taylor and his wife, Amy, killed two Gros Ventre wolves last year, he said, but it took 30 to 40 days to punch the tags.
“We were hunting those wolves,” Taylor said, “and the more I was hunting those wolves the madder I got.”
Commissioner Patrick Crank, of Cheyenne, mulled whether it would be helpful to open up a wolf trapping season. Wyoming, unlike Montana and Idaho, has not allowed wolf trapping in the trophy game area since the species lost its protected status under the Endangered Species Act, though Canis lupus can be trapped without limit in the anything-goes “predator zone.”
“We need to think about all alternatives,” Crank said, “and if that involves trapping I’m willing to think about it.”
Taylor concurred: “Desperate times are going to take desperate measures.”