How Are Wolves Impacting Western Whitetails?

In 2011, for the first time ever in Idaho, hunters harvested fewer mule deer than whitetails--big news for a state with a deer harvest that has long been dominated by muleys, and whose recent-big game headlines have been dominated by wolves and stories of their impacts (some exaggerated, some true). Wolf kills, scat, howls, and tracks--like the one pictured above--are frequent reminders of wolves' presence in the Western whitetail woods.

Whitetail numbers in northern Idaho have been robust for decades and have expanded from their stronghold north of the Salmon River, where the Idaho Department of Fish and Game manages primarily for whitetails, into river corridors of Southern Idaho, where IDFG manages specifically for mule deer.

Very healthy whitetail populations contribute to the harvest reversal, but according to Jon Rachael, State Wildlife Manager, this major shift in Gem State deer hunting also results from other factors, like a precipitous decline in mule deer herds south of the Salmon River due to rough winters. As a result, muley hunting opportunities have been reduced by necessity.

In a state where hunters have seen elk herds plummet in some regions, and where wolf packs roam across all of the state's vast forests, many hunters might assume that wolves are taking a similar toll on deer. Rachael reports that IDFG performs extensive, ongoing studies of its mule deer herds, and their fawn mortality studies seem to exonerate wolves. Far more fawns fall to coyotes and mountain lions, and even bears in some areas, than wolves. In general, inclement weather, especially a nasty winter, is the single biggest determinant of both whitetail and mule deer mortality. At the same time Rachael lets wolves off the hook for deer, he is quick to acknowledge the severe impacts of wolves on some of the state's elk and moose, particularly in north central and central Idaho from roughly the St. Joe River south into Salmon River Country. He also reports that elk are overpopulation objectives in many hunt units.

IDFG does not monitor whitetails as extensively as muleys, but Rachael suspects impacts on whitetails from wolves are similar to those on mule deer. Rachael acknowledges that wolves eat both mule deer and whitetails regularly, especially in regions with smaller elk herds and lower moose numbers. He notes, however, that wolves prefer elk and moose and have a relatively easy time bringing them down when there at least 3 to 4 animals working together, a small wolfpack by Northern Rockies' standards.

Whitetails have another advantage over their western ungulate counterparts: they are the most successful, adaptive breeders of North American deer, even in the presence of predators. Unless their populations are depressed from winterkills or EHD outbreaks, they seem to weather predation well. For example, in Northwestern Montana's North Fork Flathead River Country, where wolves and whitetails have lived together since long before the federal wolf reintroduction efforts of the mid 90s, game managers benefit from perspective lent by the passage of time. In the presence of wolves that prey often on whitetails, deer populations in the North Fork Flathead Drainage have been excellent, achieving population highs in between severe winter effects that have knocked down numbers at times. Along with wolves, these whitetails live with the full suite of predators, including grizzlies.

A less complete picture appears as we pan south across the landscape of Western Montana to the Clark Fork River Valley between Missoula and St. Regis, Montana, where wolves and whitetails have cohabitated for only a short time. Here, on the heels of successive severe winters, wolves have contributed to sharp declines in ungulate populations, including the valley's plentiful and large whitetail deer.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Wildlife Section Chief Quentin Kujala, depressed whitetail populations are far more susceptible to predation in general. He notes that whitetails in Northwestern Montana face not only predation from numerous wolf packs, but also from grizzlies and from dense cougar, black bear, and coyote populations. Still, despite widespread rumors about wolves eating not just all the elk but now all the whitetails, Kujala and his biologists already report an upswing in whitetails after two gentle winters and favorable springs.

Much of the very best whitetail hunting in Idaho and across the Northern Rockies can be found in the home ranges of wolf packs and those of other toothy critters that are much more likely to bite people. Whitetail hunters are wise, especially in grizzly country, to carry a sidearm or an even more effective deterrent: big, pressurized canisters of pepper spray. Studies show bear spray is far more effective in warding off grizzly attacks than are firearms, which often lead to wounding or missing charging animals. A canister of bear spray kept close at hand can nearly instantly deploy a 30-foot cloud of pressurized capscium capable of stopping even a charging boar grizzly. I have never needed to depress the trigger, but I have been very happy to have it in reach on a couple of occasions, including the one detailed in this article by longtime Field & Stream contributor and Spokesman Review Outdoors Editor Rich Landers.

As far as hunting opportunities, Western whitetail hunters have little reason to take predators into account. Elk hunters report tightlipped elk in the presence of wolves, meaning fewer bugles. They also report calling in wolves with cow and calf talk, like the Whitefish, Montana archer who last week arrowed a female wolf when it came in close to investigate his cow calls. The necks of whitetails bucks till swell along with their egos, and they still wander stupidly about the landscape, wolves or not. Worn out from the rigors of breeding, bucks at the tail end of the rut are likely more susceptible to predation, but not before we get a crack at them.

The river bottoms, farmlands, and woods of the West are home to some big-bodied trophy whitetails, and Jeff Holmes knows them well. A university faculty member and a lifelong whitetail hunter, Holmes is lead contributing writer for Northwest Sportsman Magazine and writes for many other outdoor publications. States covered: WA, OR, ID, MT, WY, CO.