A lot of noise has been made about the 19 elk killed last month by a pack of wolves in Bondurant. What has been lost throughout much of the coverage are the facts about what actually led to this extremely rare occurrence. Behind the headlines is a manmade story. To be able to understand what went down that night in Wyoming, these facts need to be understood.
To begin with, the elk in question were killed on a feedlot. Just like cattle, in Wyoming elk have feedlots as well. Picture anywhere between a few hundred to a few thousand “wild” elk standing around waiting to be fed. Wyoming has elk feedlots all over the place. Come winter, these feeding grounds shovel out bales of hay for the elk like they are livestock. Elk are heavily concentrated in these feedlots, fed all winter long, and have learned to just stand around waiting for their daily handouts.
So why does Wyoming feed elk in the first place? Is it because predators in the ecosystem are killing so many? No. Wyoming actually considers elk to be overpopulated. This practice was started in part to keep elk from competing with cattle back when predators across the Rocky Mountains were at their lowest numbers. In the absence of predators, elk populations exploded. Come winter, these animals would flood onto ranches in search of food, gorging themselves on stocks of hay.
When elk hunting became big business in the West, winter feeding turned into a practice similar to stocking rivers with fish. People in the West love hunting elk. It’s like a religion out here. So the state feeds elk to insure higher numbers make it through the winter. In other words, elk feedlots unnaturally inflate the numbers to help sustain a population that is heavily hunted by humans.
So what has all this done to the elk? Quite simply, elk no longer act like elk. Given that these animals have grown up in a relatively predator-free environment for nearly 100 years, elk are now being forced to come to terms with the reality of predators again. And in order to survive, lesson number one is not to stand around in groups of a several thousand, in one place, for months on end waiting for handouts from humans.
So what did the wolves do? They committed what is known as surplus killing. Occasionally, when prey is so plentiful, predators will kill multiple animals in one go. Scientists state that when faced with a bonanza such as the feedlot provided, wolves may kill with the intention to return as often as that food is available. Never heard of surplus killing before? There is a reason for that. It’s very rare—which is exactly why this became a national story, and is why Wyoming Game and Fish says it’s a first for the agency.
The fact that many refuse to entertain is wolves are not depleting the population of elk. On the contrary, elk populations in wolf states have grown consistently since wolf reintroduction. Wolves are actually good for an elk herd — taking the easy pickings — the weak, old and infirm— whereas humans take the best genes out of the herd through trophy hunting.
The other cold hard fact is that politicians, at the behest of the hunting industry, will parade that photo of the 19 elk lined up in the snow as an argument to take away federal protections for wolves. Right now in Congress there is an effort to strip away Endangered Species Act protections from wolves in Wyoming and three Midwestern states and this incident will be misused as cannon fodder in that battle.
What Wyoming intends to put in place is a plan that would allow unlimited shoot-on-sight killing of wolves across 85-percent of the state. We have been down this road before. Wyoming took control of its wolf population in 2012. In just two years, so many wolves had been killed that the Feds, under court order, had to relist them as endangered. But if the congressional legislation being considered now is made law, it will strip citizens of the right to challenge these delistings in court.
Instead of condemning these wolves for a rare act that was caused by Wyoming’s elk feedlot program, the state should consider how its elk management program helped create this situation to begin with. And Wyoming should improve its state wolf management measures rather than demonizing the species that helps keep elk populations healthy.
Jared Lloyd is a wildlife photographer based in Bozeman, Montana.