Time to Throw a Science Penalty Flag at Idaho

By Bob Ferris
As a scientist there are times that I wish that science had a “penalty flag” much like the ones we see in professional football.  Big, Idaho wolf science penalty2weighted rags thrown when things simply get out of hand in big, visible ways or in subtle but significant ways. 
Then I would be able to write: Dear State of Idaho, please understand that there is a huge yellow science flag sitting right next to the Lolo Forest and your recent, secret actions to limit wolf populations in the name of game management

Idaho elk_bull_graph_t470

In fact, I can see the science referee walking towards the sidelines, turning on his microphone and in a clear voice saying: Idaho Fish and Wildlife Commission committed a flagrant disregard of science by laying the blame of the elk decline in the Lolo units mainly on the shoulders of the wolves.


Why would I say this?  The State of Idaho wanted to manage wolves in the Lolo in 2009 and therefore sent out requests for a peer-review of their plan and justifications because it would have required federal approval.  Four out of five of the professional biologists consulted faulted the plan because it lacked rigorous and defensible elk population objectives, failed to adequately address the issues of habitat and did not make the case that wolves were the root of the issue of with elk in the Lolo (see above graph–decline predates wolves).  The only dissenting voice was that of Val Geist who wrote a weak, cheerleading, "let’s kill the wolves" type letter that should have drawn its own flag.  
“However, throughout the document, it should be stated clearly that wolves are not the cause of the decline, but a factor maintaining elk at low levels. The elk decline occurred prior to 2002 based on population estimates in the plan, but wolves did not become a major source of mortality for elk cows until 2005 per research results provided in the plan.” February 4, 2009 peer-review letter from Layne G. Adams Research Wildlife Biologist with Alaska Science Center, USGS, Department of Interior. 
“Second, because of the controversial nature of wolf control, the specifics of the data are likely to be thoroughly scrutinized and challenged. At present, the material presented in the proposal does not make a particularly convincing case that wolf predation is having an “unacceptable impact” on wild ungulate populations. Methods for establishing elk population objectives appear highly subjective and it seems plausible that the current demography of the elk herd is largely a consequence of habitat conditions. The proposal notes that historically 35-45% of the landscape was in early seral stages whereas only 14% is currently. Although there have been recent attempts to increase prescribed fire, the area burned is a small fraction of the landscape. The proposal fails to provide specific targets for forage:cover ratios or acreage necessary in early seral stages to ensure sufficient high-quality habitat to achieve elk herd objectives. The rule of thumb is usually 40:60 forage cover ratio for elk, and 14% in early seral stages is far from a reasonable habitat target. Surely we should expect that habitat targets would be met first, before using wolf control.” February 4, 2009 peer-review letter from Dr. Mark Boyce, Department of Biological Sciences, University of Alberta.  
“In reviewing that history of decline, the proposal asserts that, “..predation on elk by wolves has 
been a major contributor to the decline.” That assertion is not supported by the data presented in the proposal.” February 4, 2009 peer-review letter from Mark McNay, Alaska Department of Fish and Game.  
Now certainly these comments were written when the wolf was still protected under the Endangered Species Act’s 10{j} rule, but while the protections have changed, the science, circumstances and root causes of the decline have not.  History and population trajectories still indicate that this decline is largely driven by habitat and more recently by drought.   Pinning it on the wolf, down-playing the habitat elements, and doing it in secrecy earns Idaho a long overdue Science flag.