November 26, 2022

Don't Blame the Big Bad Wolf, One Study Claims

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And the debate rolls on!

John Vucetich, a researcher from the Michigan Technological University, along with Douglas W. Smith, leader of the National Park Service’s Yellowstone Wolf Project and Daniel R. Stahler of the National Park Service’s Yellowstone Center for Resources, have co-authored a study saying the decline in the elk population in the Yellowstone area cannot be blamed on the re-introduction of the gray wolf in 1995. (This link is a PDF version of the study conducted by Vucetich).

Their study claims several factors including drought and hunting pressure but say the predation of the wolf has a very minimal impact on the elk herd.

John Vucetich photo

Of course this study is not being widely accepted as many believe and have since the wolf was brought back that the reason there are fewer elk is simply because of the wolf.

The study says the timing of the decline in elk with the wolf reintroduction is merely coincidental. They say the decline would have happened with or without a wolf.

“Whether or not wolves had been introduced, you’d have seen fewer elk anyway.”

“Wolf impacts on elk are one of the most controversial aspects of wolf restoration in all the West,” said Douglas W. Smith, leader of the National Park Service’s Yellowstone Wolf Project. “This is one of the first definitive analyses about the impacts of wolves on elk and indicates that for the first 10 years, wolves may not have had a dramatic impact on elk numbers–that elk were declining anyway.”

This study will not set well with many. One study will not convince the masses that wolves don’t impact the wildlife significantly.

Assistant Professor Michael P. Nelson, an environmental ethicist in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Idaho, predicted that Vucetich’s work would not be readily accepted by some interest groups.

“One of the main motivators behind the effort to remove wolves from the endangered species list in the West is the assumption that they are largely responsible for noticeable elk herd reductions,” Nelson said. “If that’s true, then wolves are therefore linked to decreased hunter success rates, and therefore linked to decreased hunting tourism dollars. Vucetich’s findings will be viewed as surprising because so many people are invested in the claim that wolves are responsible for elk herd reductions. Though they probably won’t change their minds given this one study, it certainly does muddy the waters.”

And the debate rolls on!

Previous posts on the gray wolf in the west here, here, here, and here.

Tom Remington