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Researchers study elk-wolf interaction

Not much seems to stand in the way of some bull elk having a meal - not even, new research indicates, the threat of becoming a main course for hungry wolves.

Researchers believe that famished bull elk in the northwestern part of the Yellowstone ecosystem become so intent in the winter on bulking up after a stressful autumn that they leave themselves more vulnerable to attack by wolves. In fact, researchers believe, bull elk are at six times greater risk of falling prey to wolves than are cow elk.

The research is among the work being conducted to gain a better understanding of how the reintroduction of gray wolves has affected the Yellowstone ecosystem, especially wildlife such as elk.

Some sportsmen's groups and opponents of the federal government's wolf reintroduction program have argued that wolves are responsible for what they contend is a noticeable decline in elk populations in and around Yellowstone National Park.

Ken Hamlin, a research biologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks who is involved in the research, said one of its objectives is to determine if elk populations are declining, and whether wolves are a major factor.

"It's possible some of what people say is true and some is not," he said.

When researchers first set out to work in 2001, the goal was simply to find out how many elk in Montana's Gallatin Canyon, which includes an area north of Yellowstone National Park, were being killed by wolves.

But they soon found interesting behavioral patterns by elk and broadened their scope, said John Winnie Jr., a doctoral student in ecology at Montana State University.

By winter, bull elk often are famished because of stresses from the mating season and a decline in the quantity and quality of food. They routinely lose up to 20 percent of their body weight by December, Winnie said. By that point, they'll eat like it's their last meal - and for some it is.

When wolves begin to move in, he said, "bulls don't respond, at least to the extent of cows, and they're paying the price."

Because cows have more stored fat, they don't need to eat as much and can spend more time on the lookout for danger, said Scott Creel, a Montana State University ecologist.

If bulls pulled themselves away from eating, Winnie said, it would mean almost certain starvation - "and I think they would rather take their chances."

Winnie sees no cause for alarm in what researchers have found.

"It would take a huge, huge reduction in bulls before I think we would see any real impact on the population," he said. "So far, I wouldn't feel comfortable saying we're heading for trouble or anything. I don't see that in the research yet."

But outfitter Lee Hart believes trouble arrived with the wolves. The veteran outfitter from Gallatin Gateway, south Bozeman, said he hasn't seen many elk for quite some time and puts the blame squarely on wolves. He said he's had to focus on the summer trade because the hunting business in that area north of the park has dried up.

"You cannot book return hunters without at least showing them an elk," said Hart, who's also president of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association.

At trade shows, "when you try to recruit a new hunter, the first thing they will ask is if you have wolves," he said. "And if you don't lie to them, if you say you're in the middle of them, they keep walking down the aisle. That's what's happened to the state of Montana."

Such concerns just underscore the importance of better understanding the relationships between elk and wolves, Hamlin said.

Jon Schwedler, a spokesman for the Predator Conservation Alliance, said he had not seen the research but said his group is interested in science-based decisions for managing wildlife - elk and wolves included.

Research has been conducted in the northwestern part of Yellowstone National Park and in parts of southern Montana, between Bozeman and West Yellowstone. A major bull wintering spot lies within a piece of the study area that has also had plenty of wolf activity, Hamlin said. The study area has contained on average about 1,700 elk - it's now between 1,000 and 1,200, Winnie said - and as many as 15 wolves.

The federal government launched its wolf reintroduction program in and around Yellowstone beginning in 1995. Today, it is estimated that more than 800 wolves roam in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

They remain under federal protection, but wildlife managers have said they're ready to move toward handing management responsibilities for wolves to the three states, once each has a plan deemed acceptable to ensure the wolves' survival. Plans from Idaho and Montana were accepted, but federal officials rejected Wyoming's plan. That state is suing over the rejection.

Meanwhile, research continues, exploring such topics as whether wolves' presence affects elk grazing - officials say this could also have implications for calves - and stress levels in elk when wolves are around.

"What we want to find out ultimately is, how do the direct and indirect effects affect the population as a whole?" Winnie said.

Researchers have found that elk tend to break into small groups when wolves come near them. Researchers believe the smaller groupings are meant to help reduce the odds of detection.

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