EDITOR’S NOTE: In light of the upcoming free screening of “Wolves in Government Clothing,” (6:00 PM Thursday, February 20th at the C’Mon Inn Bozeman) by filmmaker, Bozeman native and AFP-California State Director David Spady, we are publishing two guest editorials by Joe Balyeat to serve as background. These editorials highlight the problem and the more than decade long battle to de-list the wolf from the Endangered Species Act and have them managed like any other species, before they cause more havoc and harm to human life and property.
Billings Gazette Published on Monday, February 18, 2002, “Sometimes crying wolf is a good thing,” By Joe Balyeat, State Representative
I was born and raised in Montana where a man’s word was his bond, his handshake good as gold. Native Montanans are fighting mad on the wolf issue because they believe the feds have repeatedly broken their word, reneged on the original deal; and that our traditional hunting way of life is paying the price for this violated trust. As an avid bow hunter north of Yellowstone, I’ve often videotaped wolf tracks and witnessed marauding wolves in bighorn country while simultaneously noting the dramatic decline in bighorn and moose populations in the area.
Meanwhile, longtime local residents have cried in vain about wolf depredation on more numerous species like elk. They argue the calf/cow ratio has been devastated by wolves; that the Yellowstone herd is teetering on a population cliff. Further, they argue this devastation is occurring despite assurances in the original wolf introduction plan that such a decline wouldn’t occur.
The original 1990 introduction document was titled “Wolves for Yellowstone? A Report to Congress and the Department of Interior.” It documented the historical (20 year) calf/cow ratio at 33 percent average and (based on statistical modeling) argued that wolf introduction wouldn’t significantly reduce this ratio. Their statistical model had one major flaw – it only estimated the number of elk killed; without differentiating the type of elk – that wolves tend to selectively prey upon calves – and could potentially decimate a herd by wiping out its “replacement stock” long before the total herd size declined enough to start limiting the number of wolves. Is there evidence?
Friends of northern herd
Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd has argued that their surveys reveal a calf ratio dropping below 10 percent – far below the 30 percent needed to maintain stable herd populations.
Fish, Wildlife & Parks surveys paint a different picture – a calf ratio of 28-29 percent; only slightly below the 30 percent target. Yet debate intensifies regarding the accuracy of FWP game surveys. The bipartisan Legislative Audit Committee (on which I serve) has expressed deep concern, and recently had a near-unanimous vote mandating a performance audit of FWP game census techniques.
I also serve as vice-chairman of the House FWP Committee. Because of increasingly dire local reports, and the huge disparity in calf survey numbers, I recently participated firsthand in a census of wintering Yellowstone elk in Paradise Valley. I joined House FWP Committee Chairman Dan Fuchs, R-Billings, and FWP Commission Chairman Dan Walker, and we were accompanied by FNYEH Chairman Bob Fanning and lifelong local resident Bill Hoppe. We surveyed nearly 500 elk wintering near Dailey Lake. To ensure accuracy, we had multiple individuals counting the same elk.
Our survey revealed a calf ratio of just over 12 percent – far below the original target of 30 to maintain a stable herd! Shocking, indeed.
De-list the wolves
I believe the feds must immediately remove the wolf from the endangered species list, so that Montana FWP can manage the rapidly exploding wolf populations (now well over 500). The original plan called for de-listing once 30 breeding pairs were established. Wolf reintroduction chief Ed Bangs admits there are now 46 breeding pairs!
Because I’ve dared speak out, pro-wolf enviros will no doubt bombard the papers with letters impugning my intelligence, while spouting reams of data diminishing wolf impact. But I have very good eyesight and I can certainly count. I know what I saw. And the wolf lobby’s data suffers from a credibility gap – they’ve violated their own original agreements so many times, that native Montanans are no longer listening to them. Those of us who’ve spent our lives in the mountains around Yellowstone see elk populations aging rapidly and headed for a cliff. In our favorite hunting spots, we see limited bighorn and moose populations already decimated.
Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk isn’t a radical “shoot, shovel and shut up” anti-wolf group. They’ve never suggested we totally eradicate wolves. They’ve simply argued that now is the time for the feds to live up to their original agreement; de-list the wolf from the endangered list so that Montana FWP can properly manage wolf populations relative to ungulate populations. It can’t wait three more years. By then even the vast elk herd will have followed the sheep and moose into disaster. Sometimes, crying “wolf!” is a good thing.
Joe Balyeat, R-Bozeman, represents House District 32., and also serves as a director of the Montana Shooting Sports Association.
Billings Gazette, Published on Thursday, May 09, 2002, “Federal authorities suppress wolf research,” By Joe Balyeat, State Representative
Federal wildlife biologists have taken much criticism lately for their sins of commission – falsifying lynx evidence where there were no lynx. But even more disastrous than their sins of commission, are their sins of omission. Montana House Fish Wildlife and Parks Committee Chairman Dan Fuchs, R-Billings, has obtained hard evidence of the following:
The feds have known since 1997 that elk calf ratios were being totally decimated in areas of high wolf concentration. When Montana FWP personnel attempted to release this evidence to the public, the feds aggressively barred them from doing so.
Beginning in 1997, Carrie Schaefer did a study of Yellowstone wolf/elk interaction entitled “Spatial and Temporal Variation in Wintering Elk Abundance and Composition, and Wolf Response.” Amongst other things, her study revealed that areas of high wolf concentration inside Yellowstone had calf ratios dropping precipitously – zero to 10 calves per 100, even while the ratio outside high wolf concentration areas remained at 46 calves per 100. When FWP biologist Tom Lemke and others made written request for permission to release this data to the public, the federal response to suppress it was swift, aggressive, and sustained. On Feb. 18, 1999, Yellowstone supervisory biologist Glenn Plumb wrote: “It is my position, after reviewing Ms. Schaefer’s investigation, that her raw data do not warrant full distribution to the public.”
On March 18, 1999, in an interoffice memo, Plumb again denied the request. And they were able to hide this striking wolf predation in the annual reports because they only gave averages for the entire northern herd – when the zero calf ratios in high wolf areas were averaged with the 46 calf ratios from elsewhere, the average was still up near the 30 calf ratio needed to sustain herd viability.
Of course, the feds rationalized their suppression by saying that Schaefer’s study was just raw data and still ongoing. Yet even after her report was completed the feds never publicized nor (to our knowledge) ever gave permission to FWP to release the information. Fuchs only got a copy of Schaefer’s study and the related inter-agency letters after aggressively demanding copies.
This winter when Fuchs, myself, and other officials did our own elk calf survey we discovered the calf ratio had plummeted. The initial response from amateur wolf advocates and some professional biologists was, “These guys are hacks and don’t know how to count.”
After the official elk census came out and totally substantiated our claims, they changed their tune. They said, “OK, they’re right about the drop, but we can’t prove it’s due to wolves. It could be drought or hard winters, etc.”
Yet the Schaefer study strongly implicates wolves as the significant factor in two different ways. First, geographically – during the course of the same winter, she observed alarmingly low calf ratios in high wolf areas even while calf ratios remained above average outside high wolf areas. This mitigates against the notion that the low calf ratios are caused by drought or hard winters.
Alarming pattern revealed
Secondly, when coupled with current data for the entire Northern Yellowstone elk herd, an alarming pattern is revealed. In 1997 and ’98, the low calf ratio was confined to areas of high wolf concentration – the Lamar Valley, etc. In this last year or so, as wolf populations have reached critical mass across the entire northern Yellowstone range, we see the area of low calf ratio also expand to encompass the entire herd.
Let’s cut to the chase (pardon the pun). Our ancestors realized long ago that the wolf is a unique critter – a killing machine and a breeding machine all rolled into one. Alaskan studies reveal wolf population increases of 34 percent annually, even while being aggressively hunted. Data from the first few years of our tri-state wolf experiment also verify this same 34 percent annual increase.
If the Feds continue to break promises, suppress evidence, and drag their feet for three to five more years; our wildlife and livestock may need to be placed on the Endangered Species List by then (never mind our pet dogs, llamas, and small children).
We are not calling for eradication of wolves. We are simply saying that NOW is the time for the feds to move immediately to de-list the wolf; so that Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho state game departments can manage wolves like any other species. It’s time for the feds to make up for past sins (of commission and omission) by turning over wolf decisions to more trustworthy managers.
State Rep. Joe Balyeat represents House District 32 in the Gallatin Valley. He is vice chairman of the House Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Committee and director of the Montana Shooting Sports Association.