Managing the Northern Yellowstone elk herd, one of the most popular in the world, is no easy task.
Here’s the dilemma: Elk calf survival is good – 21 calves per 100 cows – so the herd is stable or growing slightly, according to a March interagency survey. That’s been a goal since the herd’s numbers plummeted, after the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone in 1995, from about 19,000 to a more stable 5,000 the last three years. Elk were considered too high for the habitat before wolf introduction, scientists say.
Large bull elk numbers are up a bit this year – 7.3 brow-tined bulls per 100 cows across the entire survey area – reversing a downward trend, but the number remains low in the Montana section of the survey where the animals can be hunted – 3.8 brow-tined bulls to 100 cows while inside Yellowstone it is much higher at 16.2 bulls.
Both numbers are below long-term averages, which are 11.1 in Montana and 30.5 in Yellowstone. These are the most popular animals for hunters seeking a trophy and a vital resource for hunting outfitters outside the park.
Restricting hunting to recruit more large bulls into the population hits at the outfitters’ bottom line, and they’re not happy about the prospect of five more years of restrictions to achieve the balance desired by wildlife managers.
To complicate matters, more elk than ever are migrating out of Yellowstone and into southwest Montana’s Paradise Valley – 89 percent of the herd moved this winter. Since many of the elk have been exposed to brucellosis, a disease that can cause cattle to abort their calves and results in a rancher’s entire herd being quarantined, their intermingling with livestock is a concern.
So although elk numbers are stable after 10 years of almost steady decline, FWP is in a bit of a dilemma. The state’s population objective for the herd is 3,000 to 5,000 animals.
“We’re right up against our population objective in Montana,” said Karen Loveless, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist based in Livingston. “If they continue to migrate like now and the herd grows, we’re going to have a problem.
“I’d love to see the herd grow inside the park.”
Why more elk are migrating out of the park in winter could be attributed to several factors: harsher winters inside Yellowstone, more bison competing for resources as that herd has grown, more predators in the park as grizzly numbers have climbed and possibly a behavioral change among the elk who feel safer in winter by migrating out of Yellowstone.
Years ago, more elk may have stayed in Yellowstone because Montana allowed a late season cow elk hunt – referred to by some as “the firing line” – which would have conditioned elk to avoid the same areas that they are now migrating through.
Despite more elk leaving the park percentage-wise, Loveless said she had fewer problems this winter with elk invading haystacks and creating other problems on private land.
FWP uses the March count to estimate the overall sex and age structure of the elk herd.
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