Yellowstone elk population up slightly

7,109 elk counted in the northern range.

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Elk grazing in Yellowstone
© Ken Cole

Each year elk are counted from a plane on the northern range of Yellowstone and the counts are affected by conditions on the ground and in the air.

It appears that the elk population is stabilizing from the drop seen over the last decade. At one time the estimate was 19,000 which was far more than was healthy for the ecosystem of the Park. Montana FWP allowed a late season hunt on the border of the Park near Gardiner where thousands of elk were harvested in an attempt at lowering the population.

Yellowstone elk population up slightly
Montana’s News Station

Central Idaho elk and deer doing fine in presence of wolves

Dr. Jim Peek presented data at the Chico wolf conference showing that the elk and deer population is doing fine in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. He examined population and hunter success trends in 4 key hunting units before and after wolf restoration.

Currently there are 105-119 wolves in the 4 units, which he believes is the maximum number that will naturally occur.

Overall, elk harvest is nearly stable with a slight upward trend in recent years. Mule deer harvest has increased more dramatically, perhaps the result of the many recent forest fires that have resulted in a proliferation of browse,

In the individual units, elk population is declining on one, increasing on one, with no trend in the other two.

Peek predicted a future decline in the most remote areas because of an overabundance of old, non-productive cow elk, and relatively few bull elk due to human hunting effects (few hunters will pack in 2 to 4 days to shoot an old cow elk, but they will for a bull elk). He speculated that the future elk decrease in the deep backcountry would be greater if wolf populations are reduced because old cows are what the wolves target — average age 13 years.

In the one front country unit (the Salmon Face, unit 28), the present and future seem bright because the cow elk are younger and the cow/calf ratio higher. Hunters there do go after cow elk because it does not take the time to get into that country.

Overall, the wolves have had little effect on elk or deer population size. The important factors are wildfires (57% of the area has burned since 1982), summer drought or adequate rainfall, and winter severity. Wolves can potentially suppress population rebound following a severe winter, especially in the frontcountry unit, although he presented no evidence that this has actually happened.