Hunting in Wolf Country

The return of gray wolves to Washington has raised concerns among hunters about the future of big game – and big game hunting – in the state. Wolves, after all, are formidable predators, whose primary prey in the western states is elk, deer and moose.

In early 2013, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) confirmed the presence of 51 wolves in the state and estimated the actual population at about 100 animals. Most of the state’s wolf packs are in northeastern Washington, although packs and individual wolves continue to expand south and west toward the Cascade Mountains.

To date, WDFW wildlife managers have found no evidence that the state’s growing wolf population has had an effect on game herds. Still, while most of Washington’s elk, deer and moose populations are growing or stable, the experience in other western states shows that high concentrations of wolves can have a substantial effect on some herds.

Using radio collars, DNA sampling and aerial surveys, WDFW has greatly expanded monitoring of elk, deer and moose populations that will help measure the effect of predation by wolves as their numbers in the state continue to grow.

Working with the University of Montana, the department has initiated a study of white-tailed deer, examining their habitat use, movements and mortality rates. Another study with the University of Washington is designed to assess predation on white-tailed and mule deer populations. Starting with the 2013 season, WDFW will also ask hunters for more information – and organ samples – from harvested ungulates to assess their health and body condition.

Wolves in neighboring states

Studies in other western states with far more wolves than Washington have not found that wolves have caused declines in deer or elk populations or hunter harvest on a statewide level. However, two northern Rocky Mountain states have determined that predation by wolves can take a heavy toll on some local elk herds, especially those affected by other factors such as harsh weather, poor habitat, high hunter harvest and other predators such as cougars and bears.

In Idaho, where 746 wolves were confirmed in 2011, wolves were found to be the primary cause of female elk mortality and suppressed population levels in five of 29 game management zones, including areas that have historically drawn high numbers of out-of-state hunters. Similar conditions have been reported in some game units in Montana, which has 660 confirmed wolves.

Wildlife managers in both states have responded to those conditions by reducing antlerless harvest, hunting seasons and permits in affected areas. However, on a statewide basis, the average number of elk harvested by hunters in Idaho and Montana has changed little over the past decade, despite a significant increase in those states’ wolf populations.

For more information, see the websites for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

The hunt goes on

The experience in other states does not support the idea that the presence of wolves signals the end of western big game hunting. While wolves represent additional competition for game animals, ungulates have evolved with wolves on the landscape and are reanimating their survival strategies in response to wolves’ reappearance. Big game hunters may also want to adjust their hunting strategies in several ways:

  • Watch for wolf activity:  Howling, fresh scat and other signs that wolves are near are not necessarily bad news for hunters. Wolves are highly adept at locating prey, and can help hunters find deer and elk as well. Timing is important, however. Just as deer and elk will temporarily abandon a favored area when under pressure from human hunters, hunting pressure from wolves can have the same effect.
  • Follow the prey:  Elk and deer respond to wolves by splitting up into smaller groups and spending more time in forested areas, on steeper slopes, in rocky areas and at higher elevations. Hunters may have to scout different terrain and use new techniques to find big game. 
  • Keep even quieter:  Hunters sometimes use calls to draw deer, moose and especially elk within range. However, as wolves have recolonized the Northern Rockies, elk have become more silent in response. Bull elk bugle less and are also more wary of hunters imitating bugles. Bugling and cow calling can still be effective, but both sounds attract wolves, and elk have learned this. Calling less frequently is the best strategy with wolves on the landscape.
  • Keep dogs close: While big game hunters do not use dogs, some upland bird hunters venture into wolf territory with theirs. Wolves view dogs as competitors or territorial intruders and have attacked dogs ranging far from their masters in remote areas. Wolves tend to avoid humans, so keeping bird dogs at close range is the best course of action.

Managing predation impacts on ungulates

The state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan allows WDFW to use measures to protect at-risk ungulate populations from predation by wolves. Any population listed for protection under state or federal law is defined as “at risk” under the plan (e.g. woodland caribou and Columbian white-tailed deer). So is any other ungulate population that falls 25 percent below its population objective for two consecutive years – or if harvest by hunters decreases 25 percent below the 10-year average for two consecutive years.

Under any of these circumstances, the plan allows WDFW to remove wolves through lethal or other measures if wolves are the cause of the decline.

Once wolves meet the criteria for delisting under that plan, WDFW  plans to propose that wolves be managed through hunting, like other game species.