Sommers isn't alone in that belief.
B.J. Hill is an outfitter who takes clients out to hunt big game. Across the three-state Western wolf region, a debate rages about how much wolves have affected the populations of elk (and moose and deer and bison). Hill blames every client's unfilled elk tag on wolves, and he says the recent lawsuit to reverse the delisting was an affront. "I'm anti-wolf now," he sputters at The Place, a bar and restaurant he recently bought near Cora. "I'm done with them and I'm done with environmentalists. I'm done with all of them."
That's partly because, among Wyoming sportsmen, elk is king. The state feeds wild elk in winter feedgrounds because ranches, subdivisions, and more recently, gas fields have gobbled up much of the animal's traditional winter range. (Controversy broils over the feedgrounds, which some say are incubators for brucellosis, a disease that causes cows to abort.) Hunters and outfitters believe wolves treat elk feedgrounds like an all-you-can-eat buffet.
"Game and Fish knows that these (elk) calf numbers are plummeting," Hill says with conviction. "They know it."
Mike Stevie, another local outfitter, recounts how when he was working at a feedground, he saw a wolf pack move in and tear up the elk. "Everybody says a wolf will just come kill the sick and the weak — that's totally off the wall." Stevie says he watched a pack kill 30 healthy elk that winter, using the feedground to teach the young wolves how to hunt. "They were just hamstringing them and lettin' them go," he says. "They're definitely a killing machine."
But even here, there's another side to the story. John Fandek, a ranch hand who lives near Cora, also works at elk feedgrounds during the winter. "One lone wolf showed up four years ago, a big black male," he recalls from his yard on the border of the trophy/predator wolf zone in the Upper Green River Valley. "He killed essentially every crippled elk on the feed ground. I know that some people say they kill indiscriminately, but it was very obvious to me that this particular wolf and other wolves I've seen there will take the cripples first, simply because it's easier."
Scott Werbelow, the game warden coordinator for the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish in Pinedale, offers yet another perspective. Werbelow says elk numbers are strong and relatively stable in his area. "Many hunters think the wolves have killed all the elk," he says. "What we're seeing is that the elk have been moved from small groups into larger groups, and the larger groups of elk have been redistributed."
In other words, the elk in these parts at least have responded to the presence of predators by behaving more like … elk. Mike Stevie, the outfitter who witnessed the multiple wolf kills at the elk feedground, surprises me again by agreeing. "The elk population seems to be doing pretty well, really," he says. "It's just making it a lot harder to find the animals. And they're dispersing into places where we've never had to hunt before. And it's just making it tougher on our clientele and on our help."
I provoke him a little by asking if the wolf is just making it so hunters have to actually hunt again, rather than going shooting, and he nods his head in total agreement. "Back in the old times, the old good hunters, they'd have loved every minute of it," he says with a smile. "But now it's just such a fast-paced world that our clients they just want to get in, fill their tag and move on. And the wolves are not helping them much."
The wolves have been very good, however, to David Watson, a New Western outfitter. Watson, who runs Wildlife Expeditions for the nonprofit Teton Science School in Jackson Hole, leads multi-day wolf- and bear-watching tours as well as nine weeks of winter wolf-watching. He says that about a third of his business is wolf-related. "Wolves have really helped our business grow exponentially," he says. "You know, there's not too many places in the world where you can see wolves, or see wolves and bears at the same time."