Northwestern Wyoming and nearby Montana and Idaho have long been known among sportsmen as prime elk hunting habitat (although in Colorado hunters harvest more elk on a yearly basis). Much of the Northern Rockies herd is centered in the "Greater Yellowstone ecosystem," that is, the three million acres of Yellowstone National Park, plus six million acres that make up the six national forests that surround the Park, a total of nine million acres. Elk migrate out of the Park every fall and winter to forage in the border zone of national forest and adjacent private land, and here they are fair game for hunters. This is called the "elk winter range."
When elk do this they "herd up" in large numbers even in the thousands across specific local geographic areas, places where snow depths aren't as great as in the Park, or where the range is frequently snow-free thanks to the Chinook-effect on the east slope of the Rockies. Typical places are the National Elk Refuge near Jackson, Wyoming; the southern reaches of Paradise Valley near Gardiner, Montana; and on vast Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holdings and private ranchland on those eastern mountain slopes near Cody, Wyoming.
These herds are easily monitored by federal and state wildlife management personnel using helicopters in remote areas, or through simple observation with spotting scopes and binoculars. Each winter, rough census numbers are compiled, especially the important "cow/calf" ratios. The cow/calf ratio is the main indicator of the future stable population and general health of the herd. In recent years the cow/calf ratio regionwide has dropped from a normal rate of "33 calves per 100 cows" down to the generally accepted number for last winter of "14 calves per 100 cows," according to Scott McMillion of the Bozeman Chronicle.
Declining elk numbers are fodder for many arguments as to their cause (drought, severe winters, higher hunting pressure in some areas), but it seems that the main reason for the decline of cow/calf ratios since 1995 is the presence of wolves in the Greater Yellowstone region.
The federally mandated "reintroduction" program that year and the next brought in 66 transplanted Canadian wolves to the Yellowstone and central Idaho regions whose numbers have since grown to an estimated 650 grouped into three dozen separate packs (200 Yellowstone, 100 Montana, 350 central Idaho). The Yellowstone bunch has expanded beyond the borders of the Park, and onto the adjoining federal, state and private lands. Livestock depredation (another contentious issue, though ranchers are reimbursed for losses) is not tolerated, and repeat offenders are "removed" (that is, shot) from the population. In the end, the main food source for the wolves are the elk, numbering 35,000 in Greater Yellowstone.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) may "delist" the wolves as early as 2003 since their increasing numbers have now met the federal guidelines under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and they are to be managed by the aforementioned states. Montana, Wyoming and Idaho will each have to submit a management plan for federal approval in the next few months. Doing so will put great strain on the wildlife management budgets of those states.
They are all currently suffering budget shortfalls. Montana, for instance, is running a $57 million deficit, and the legislature lately is in emergency session to deal with it. Needless to say, these state wildlife management departments will take hits just like any other state agency. This at a time when shrinking elk populations (and moose, deer and bighorn sheep) will make for more careful big game management, and less incoming revenue from both resident and non-resident hunting license fees. And then there's the economic impact on towns such as Cody, Wyoming, and West Yellowstone and Livingston, Montana -- which have historically depended on an influx of autumn elk and deer hunters as an extension to the summer tourist season.
The USFWS, and Playing-God busybody environmentalists and their lawyers have given us large populations of high maintenance, top-of-the-food-chain predators, and are now walking away expecting state wildlife programs and local taxpayers to deal with them. This as the big game hunting culture of the Northern Rockies goes into decline. If the Feds and deep pockets enviro organizations love wolves so much, they should pay for their upkeep. And spare us the future inevitable lawsuits when the wolves are so numerous that the three states in question institute hunting seasons on them, to better control their numbers and discourage the decimation of big game herds and massive livestock depredation. Put up or shut up.
The above eco-engineering is only one example of hundreds around the country of the ESA run amok, and makes a good case for its reform. If the Republicans retain the House and take back the Senate, and if President Bush supports the idea, maybe it will happen.
Other than that, maybe we can rely on the Feds, the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife et al. to come up with an elk "reintroduction" program when the population crashes in the coming years.
The Endangered Species Act will be the death of the American West.