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If you live in the Northern Rockies, you have either read or heard someone claim that wolves have decimated elk populations and thus ruined elk-hunting in the region. “The wolves are killing all the elk” has become the battle cry against wolves these days, and you hear it or see it everywhere. For a minute, let’s forget that more than 350,000 elk currently inhabit Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. And let’s forget that there are only about 1,700 wolves.

Wolves, Elk, and Slob-Hunting

If you live in the Northern Rockies, you have either read or heard someone claim that wolves have decimated elk populations and thus ruined elk-hunting in the region. “The wolves are killing all the elk” has become the battle cry against wolves these days, and you hear it or see it everywhere.

For a minute, let’s forget that more than 350,000 elk currently inhabit Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. And let’s forget that there are only about 1,700 wolves.

I’m calling a 20-second timeout. Thanks, ref. Okay, I had to call the timeout because as soon as I post this blog entry, a proud defender of The Battle Cry is going to post a comment, wherein he or she will accuse me of lying, residing in New York City, and hugging too many trees. So, I am going to set the record straight right now.

For elk, I used the population numbers that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation published this fall. If you’re not familiar with the Elk Foundation, the group recently secured its anti-wolf bona fides by analogizing what’s happening right now with wolves and elk to the near extinction of bison at the turn of the 19th century. (“Hey Truth, how do you like them apples?”) It’s a proud espouser of The Battle Cry and no fan of wolves – so you can’t accuse me of padding the elk numbers.

For wolf numbers, I used the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s 2009 Year-End Annual Report, since it’s the most recent official report on the Northern Rockies wolf population. On page 5 of the report’s summary, it states that at the end of 2009 it was estimated that there were at least 1,706 wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountain Distinct Population Segment, which includes Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, the eastern one third of Washington and Oregon, and a small part of northcentral Utah. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has been trying to kick wolves off the endangered species list for a few years, so it would be against their interest to underestimate wolf numbers.

Finally, I live in Bozeman, Montana, not New York City. But as for the trees, you got me – I can’t walk past a damn lodgepole pine without hugging it (the same goes for bunny rabbits).

Okay, team, back to the blog.

Let’s also forget that the Wyoming/Montana/Idaho elk population has grown by almost 20% since wolves were reintroduced in the mid-1990s. (Elk Foundation numbers, not mine (elk numbers.pdf).) And for the few elk populations that have decreased in size since the mid-1990s, let’s not worry about habitat loss, development, severe winter weather, fire suppression, hunter harvest, or the other factors that affect elk numbers (or the simple reality shunned by Battle Criers that sometimes a decrease in an animal population is actually a good thing – suburban whitetail deer, anyone?).

Yeah, forget about all those pesky little facts.

I write because two recent news stories made me want to throw my computer out the window. (Click here and here for the stories.)

The two news stories describe “slob hunters” in Montana carelessly blasting into elk herds on the run at long distances, wounded elk left to slowly die on their own, unclaimed dead cow elk, and hunting behavior that would have enraged Teddy Roosevelt.

And yet some of these “hunters” still had the gall to complain about wolves. As the author of one of the stories aptly observed:

“Can anyone explain what wolves have to do with seven guys spraying a herd of elk with 30 bullets? Am I the only person who sees the hypocrisy in someone who would do that complaining about a lack of elk to hunt?”

Egregious hypocrisy, unethical hunting, wasted elk. And these are just two stories; how many other episodes of slob-hunting transpired this fall?

As an admirer of wolves and the wildness they represent, these stories irked me. As the facts above reveal, elk are doing pretty damn well in the Northern Rockies. Sure, wolves, along with myriad other factors, have helped reduce elk numbers in some areas, but, as I mentioned above, that’s not necessarily a bad thing (unless you like the idea of the Northern Rockies as a giant neutered game farm).

I’m tired of misinformation and The Battle Cry, and while wolves will undoubtedly remain The Bogey Monster for the foreseeable future, it would be refreshing to see the same groups that energetically demonize wolves in the name of elk decry slob-hunters with the same gusto in the name of elk. If conserving elk is their goal, clearly such slob-hunters pose a dire threat to that goal.

These two stories also troubled me because I’m a hunter, and slob-hunting wastefully kills animals and ruins the name of hunting for everyone. A couple of weeks ago, I climbed high into the mountains in my snowshoes and tracked and killed a bull elk. It was an amazing day – one I’ll never forget – and that elk will provide my wife and me with wild, healthy, local, organic, non-factory-farmed meat through the winter.

But reading about the “hunting” in these two stories made my stomach turn. At a time when hunting continues to become less popular nationally, despicable stories about slob-hunters will only push more kids towards computer games and away from the woods (and an important environmental interest group, hunters, will be further marginalized).

Slob-hunting is bad for elk, bad for other wildlife, bad for the future of hunting, and bad for the environment. It’s time to apply more public pressure to put an end to slob-hunting.

Or we could just keep on blindly blaming those god damn wolves …

Matt Skoglund, a wildlife advocate in Livingston, Mont., blogs for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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