Elk numbers plummet; wildlife managers respond by regulating hunters
The herd is now the smallest it's been since the 1970s.
A Dec. 18 flight by state and federal biologists found 8,355 elk despite "relatively good survey conditions," which means good weather and enough snow to make elk visible from the air.
That's a drop of at least 880 elk, or 9.5 percent, from last year's count of 9,215, when conditions were poor and biologists said they probably missed a lot of elk.
The herd has dropped by an average of 6 percent a year since 1994, when the herd had at least 19,359 elk. That timespan coincides with the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995.
"Wolves are certainly a primary mortality factor" for elk, said P.J. White, a Yellowstone wildlife biologist.
Another big factor is human predation, especially in the annual Gardiner-area late hunt. But unlike wolves, which are protected by the Endangered Species Act, hunter numbers can be restricted.
Regulating hunting numbers "is the only tool we have" in that area, said Tom Lemke, wildlife biologist in Livingston for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The late hunt that began last weekend has already been cut in half, and might be pared some more, Lemke said. This year, 1,400 permits were granted, compared to 2,880 in 1997.
Lemke said it's too soon to give any specific numbers, but "it's possible we will reduce them" further in coming years.
"When you have fewer elk, you harvest fewer," Lemke said.
White said the herd size probably will continue to shrink.
"I expect the population will continue to decrease in the near future," he said.
The effect of wolves on elk has become a big issue with some hunters and outfitters in the Gardiner area.
Fewer late-season hunters means fewer people renting rooms, buying meals and hiring guides in that parkside community, where the late hunt has become part of the winter economy.
"It's breaking us," said Bill Hoppe, a Jardine outfitter and a founder of the Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd.
He said he has 40 hunters booked this year.
"I used to take 100, sometimes 150," he said. "All the outfitters you talk to are way down."
With the cuts in permits, "that's 1,000 people who didn't come to town," Hoppe said, and most hunters bring a companion.
If each spent $100 in Gardiner, that means $200,000 in lost business, plus the $200 a day charged by guides.
Last year, guided hunters took almost 50 percent of the 718 elk harvested in the late hunt, according to an FWP report.
Hoppe last year predicted a significant drop in elk numbers and said they'll continue to fall.
"What'd I say last year? That we'd be down another 1,000 elk," he said. "Like I told you last year: I told you so."
So how many elk is appropriate for the northern range? People have argued about that for most of a century.
Until 1968, rangers regularly killed hundreds of elk at at time inside the park, keeping the herd to about 3,500 animals, and critics still said the park was overgrazed.
After the National Park Service culling stopped, the herd grew quickly. And the number of hunting permits outside the park grew as well, with the goal of avoiding overgrazing outside the park.
Now, since the return of the wolf, the herd has seen a steady decline.
Nobody knows how it will end.
"We'll continue to monitor it closely," White said.
He noted that wolves aren't the only factor at play.
Preliminary reviews of data collected last summer show that grizzly bears are killing an increasing number of elk calves. Black bears and wolves also kill significant numbers. And weather is always a factor.
But of the three major factors affecting elk numbers -- predation, weather and hunting -- only hunting can be controlled.
White praised FWP for reducing the number of hunters.
"I commend them for taking that step," he said.
Scott McMillion is at firstname.lastname@example.org
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