Answer: There is no shortage of elk where wolves live in the Rocky Mountains. According to state game agencies, in 2010 in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, there are 371,000 elk, 21,000 more than the previous year. In Wyoming, the elk population is actually 50% above management objectives set by the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish. In Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, there are at most 1,700 wolves, which are far outnumbered by bears and mountain lions. Certainly, with 371,000 elk and many more deer, there is plenty of prey.
However, in some areas, the success of big game hunters has declined a bit, but not due to a general lack of elk. With wolves back, elk habits have changed, reverting to behavior honed by time as the two species co-evolved in a predator/prey balance. Now elk are once again more alert and spend much of their time on the move. They find security in thick timber and maintain vantage points by spending more time on ridgelines rather than lingering down in open meadows and streambeds. From the ridges, they can see threats approaching and have many directions to flee.
All these factors lead to heightened challenges for hunters. Some concerned hunters point to specific herds, claiming that the elk are being decimated but, overall, population trends clearly dismiss that claim.
While only a few elk herds are in decline, local and regional fluctuations of herd populations are normal, according to the historical record. Population trends are influenced by many factors. Forest fires, for example, actually benefit elk by creating prime habitat. When trees burn, verdant meadows, rich in nutritious grasses, replace the dead trees, and elk numbers increase. But eventually, the trees grow back, thick shade decreases underlying grasses, and the elk population drops again.
Wolves keep the elk gene pool strong. When wolves hunt, their technique is based not only on strategy, but also on opportunity. They wear their prey down in a chase, singling out the weak, which are usually the sick, injured, old, or young. The survivors are most often the healthiest, fastest and strongest elk, which live on to reproduce and perpetuate the best genes of their species. This predator-prey relationship is good for both the health of the elk, and the health of the land.