Wolves are carnivores and feed primarily on hoofed mammals (“ungulates”) such as deer, elk, moose, caribou, and rarely on mountain goats and bighorn sheep. They also prey to a much lesser extent on beavers, rabbits, and almost any other small animal. Coastal wolves in British Columbia are known to eat salmon. Wolves are also natural scavengers and readily feed on the carcasses of dead animals.
Wolves have caused significant declines in some elk herds in other states. However, statewide elk populations in states such as Idaho and Montana with far more wolves than Washington have remained relatively stable over the past decade. The average number of elk harvested by hunters in those states has also shown little change during that time.
Wolves are just one of many factors affecting elk and deer populations. Others include harsh weather, poor habitat, high hunter harvest rates, and other predators such as cougars and bears. While wolves may contribute to the decline of a weak herd, experience in other states indicates they are seldom the primary cause of that condition.
As Washington’s wolf population continues to grow, WDFW has expanded monitoring efforts to help understand the effect of wolf predation on state herds. The state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan provides WDFW with several options – including lethal measures – to protect at-risk ungulate populations from predation by wolves.
Wolves can cause elk or deer to spend more time in heavily forested areas, on steeper slopes, and at higher elevations than they did before wolves were present. These changes in behavior can contribute to the misinterpretation that wolves have caused broad decreases in elk numbers. Research indicates that elk use habitats differently where wolves are present. One study confirmed that when wolves are in the area, elk spend less time in the open and more time in forested cover areas.
Wolves are probably responsible for shifts in where elk or deer herds reside at different times of the year. For example, with the presence of wolves elk that used to reside in large groups in open flat areas may break into much smaller groups in steeper, more forested areas.
Based on the experience of other western states with wolves, hunters who adapt to the behavioral changes of elk and deer in the presence of wolves will likely continue to harvest big game at rates similar to those in the past. (Over the past dozen years, an annual average of 27 percent of all deer hunters in Washington harvested deer; an average of 10 percent of all elk hunters statewide harvested elk.)
As documented by researchers and experienced by sportsmen, wolves cause elk to change their behavior on the landscape. Since the return of wolves to the West, elk tend to linger less in open areas, often move to higher altitudes, and may even leave one valley to seek out more hidden locales in a nearby valley. The adaptations hunters may need to make with this new competitor on the landscape include spending time in new and different areas than traditionally hunted.
According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, wolves are probably affecting hunting in some places, but there are no clear answers that apply across the board. Different combinations and densities of predator and prey species, terrain, vegetation, climate, land ownership patterns, and land uses result in different opportunities for hunters. For example, in mountainous areas, wolf predation seems to be more influential than in areas where livestock are present.
Elk are a prime food source for wolves. While wolves are impacting elk in a few hunting districts, these are the minority, as elk populations throughout the tri-state area (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming) remain high: According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, wolves are probably affecting hunting in some places, but there are no clear answers that apply across the board. Different combinations and densities of predator and prey species, terrain, vegetation, climate, land ownership patterns, and land uses result in different opportunities for hunters
While changes in elk behavior may create a more challenging hunting experience (for wolves as well as people!), elk populations throughout the region remain high.
- Wyoming: 120,000 elk estimated statewide, 50 percent above objective; the state of Wyoming continues to manage for a reduction in elk population.
- Montana: 150,000 elk estimated statewide, 14 percent over objective. Montana has the second highest elk population of any state.
- Idaho: Estimated population: 101,100, slightly below objective; 23 of the state's 29 game management zones have elk numbers within targets or above.
WDFW is monitoring big game populations, predator-prey relationships, and hunter harvest closely. If any ungulate population falls 25 percent below its population objective for two consecutive years, and/or if hunter harvest decreases by 25 percent below the 10-year average harvest rate for two consecutive years, WDFW may consider reducing wolf abundance in affected areas, where applicable with federal law.
As prescribed by the state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, if wolf predation became a primary limiting factor for an “at risk” ungulate population in a wolf recovery region that had at least four successful breeding pairs of wolves, WDFW could consider reducing wolf abundance in the localized area. An “at risk” ungulate population is any federal or state listed species (Selkirk Mountain woodland caribou, Columbian white-tailed deer) or any ungulate population that falls 25 percent below its population objective for two consecutive years, and/or if hunter harvest decreases by 25 percent below the 10-year average harvest rate for two consecutive years.
WDFW asks hunters to help monitor wolf numbers and distribution in Washington by using an On-line Reporting System to convey information about wolves and/or wolf sign seen while in the field. This information helps contribute to WDFW’s effort to delist wolves as a state endangered species.
As always, WDFW works to protect, restore and maintain habitat on both public and private land for all Washington’s wildlife, including big game species and predators like bears, cougars and wolves. Ensuring ample habitat for a diverse wildlife community is one of the best, long-term methods to ensure the future of big game hunting.
The department plans to recommend that wolves be classified and protected as game animals and carefully managed like other hunted wildlife. When wolves reach recovery objectives across the state and are no longer classified as threatened or endangered, a public process to establish hunting seasons and rules could begin.
Behavioral changes are expected of other wild carnivores as wolves compete for prey. Wolf interactions with other carnivores, like coyotes, may shift some species populations in Washington but probably not significantly. Other wildlife may benefit from wolves, either directly as with scavengers on kills, or indirectly with whole ecosystem responses to wolf presence over time.