I can see that Robert Fanning is hot to have his say about the terrible terrible trouble he thinks wolves have done to the northern range elk.
He added the comment below to the jackrabbit thread, but let’s give him a post.
Subject: Northern Yellowstone elk older and fewer
Friday, December 16, 2005 the last time this herd in “crisis ” was counted by those entrusted by the public ; what do they have to hide? Why did they stop counting a herd that up till now was audited each year since 1895?
This article was Archived on Monday, January 16, 2006 @Mt.FWP
The nationally known Northern Yellowstone elk herd, numbering about 9,500 animals, is notably smaller, about half the size it was in the mid-1990’s. Wildlife managers recently learned that its members are notably older, too.
Elk incisor teeth, collected from past harvests and analyzed for age, indicate that for the first time, 50 percent of the population is nine or more years old. That makes it an exceptionally old elk population compared to others in the state.
“The northern herd is fast becoming a geriatric elk population which may reduce the herd’s productivity and its ability to recover from recent population declines,” said Tom Lemke, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologist in Livingston. “The aging of this population, and the smaller number of elk calves we’re seeing survive, will continue to influence management decisions and to reduce hunter opportunity in this area.”
The Northern Yellowstone elk herd migrates to a winter range on about a 590-square mile area along the Lamar, Gardiner and Yellowstone river basins inside Yellowstone Park and north of the park in southwestern Montana. A portion of these animals that migrate into Montana provide hunting opportunities during the popular Gardiner late season elk hunt set this year for Jan. 6 – 30, 2006.
Teeth from the harvested elk have been studied since 1996 by a small laboratory in Milltown, near Missoula. There technicians carefully section, stain, and count the cementum annuli rings they see on the roots of the incisor teeth to determine the accurate age of each animal. The rings in the elk teeth are analogous to the rings on a tree, each ring marking a year of growth.
Recent analysis shows that the average age of elk harvested in 2005 during the Gardiner late season elk hunt hit record highs—8.2-years old for cows, and 9.1-years old for bulls. Ten years ago, the average was 6.2 and 5.9 years of age respectively.
Average ages in other Montana elk populations are generally in the range of four to five years.
“The aging of the Northern Yellowstone elk herd is an additional factor that could make it more difficult for this herd to expand,” Lemke said. Other factors include the high number of elk calves taken by predators, and losses of calves and adult elk to severe winter weather.
The new statewide Elk Management Plan uses the number of elk calves that survive their first year of life to be recruited into the herd as one guideline to determine if liberal, standard or restrictive hunting is appropriate.
Here again, the Northern Yellowstone elk are struggling. Aerial surveys indicate that, for the past four years, only 12-14 calves per 100 cow elk survived the first year of life and joined the herd. Recruitment of about 30 calves per 100 cows is more typical for northern Yellowstone elk.
Recent studies in Yellowstone National Park show that about 70-75 percent of newborn radio-tagged northern Yellowstone elk calves are dead within a year of their birth, mostly due to predation. Predators include primarily bears, wolves, and coyotes—with bears accounting for 55-60 percent of the mortality and wolves and coyotes with another 10-15 percent each.
Wildlife managers have gone from liberal, to standard, to conservative hunting quotas over the past six years, trying to keep pace with dynamic changes affecting the herd. Lemke said antlerless elk permit quotas have been reduced from 2,880 in the year 2000 to 100 in 2006.
“There will probably always be debate about how many elk people want to see in this herd. But for its overall health and viability, we know calf recruitment needs to increase in order to see the age structure of the herd return closer to the norm,” Lemke said.
“We’ve reduced antlerless elk harvest quotas in an attempt to conserve cow elk. With more adult cow elk, we hope to see an improvement in calf recruitment, but there is a lot in this mix that we can’t control,” he said.
In the meantime, studying the teeth of harvested elk to determine the average age of the population will continue. It may seem the scientific equivalent of reading the “tea leaves,” but it is one way for wildlife managers to evaluate over time how the Northern Yellowstone elk herd is doing in adapting to changes in weather, habitat, predators, and hunting pressure.
What is the ratio of bulls to cows NOW in the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd ?
What was it for the past 20 years?