Since the return of wolves to Idaho 15 years ago, Idaho’s overall elk population has dropped by 20 percent from 125,000 to about 100,000.
Idaho Fish and Game research in 11 elk-management zones shows that predators have become the primary cause of death among female elk in five zones, all of them south of the Panhandle.
In at least three of those zones – Lolo, Smoky Mountains and Sawtooth – wolves are the primary cause of death of female elk and calves over six months old.
In the other two zones – Elk City and Salmon – mountain lions either equaled or exceeded wolves as the primary cause of elk deaths.
Among the hardest hit by a combination of factors is the Lolo Zone, once a star producer of elk and trophy bulls.
Those herds boomed starting in the 1940s in the habitat that blossomed in the aftermath of the 1910 fires.
With habitat deteriorating in that region, the winter of 1996-97 hammered the central herds, as well as elk in the Panhandle.
Black bears and cougars already were known to be taking a toll on Lolo elk when wolf introductions started in 1995.
As the elk numbers in the Lolo and Sawtooth zones have declined, Idaho Fish and Game has raised limits on predators, reduced hunting opportunities and stopped female elk harvest in the Lolo Zone since 1998.
Still, cow elk populations in the upper Lochsa River region have been declining by about 13 percent a year.
The state currently is pressing the federal government for authority to cull 70-80 of the 100 wolves inhabiting the Lolo Zone.