Figures released Wednesday show it is now down to a minimum of 4,635 elk. That compares with more than 6,000 the previous year. Park biologist Doug Smith said 2010’s decline was unexpected because the herd had shown signs of stabilizing in recent …
Yellowstone Park herd drops 24 percent in 2010
Wildlife officials said Wednesday that an acclaimed elk herd in Yellowstone National Park dropped in size by 24 percent over the last year — as predators, hunters, recent drought and deep snows all took a toll.
As recently as 1994, the northern Yellowstone elk herd was the largest in North America with almost 20,000 animals that roamed between the park, Montana’s Paradise Valley and Wyoming areas, including Sunlight Basin and Crandall.
Figures released Wednesday show it is now down to a minimum of 4,635 elk. That compares with more than 6,000 the previous year. Park biologist Doug Smith said 2010’s decline was unexpected because the herd had shown signs of stabilizing in recent years.
But he added that a smaller herd was more healthy, and he had no reason to believe its size will continue to plummet. Smith says deep snows may have thrown off the count by shifting some elk into areas where they were more likely to be missed.
“Either we counted them poorly this year, predator effects were stronger, the big snow event made us miss more elk or more elk were harvested,” he said. “Usually the best answer in ecology is all of the above.”
The long-term decline in the herd began soon after gray wolves were reintroduced to the region in the 1990s.
Smith and other biologists say the herd was too large to begin with, forcing too many elk to compete for too little forage.
But some hunting advocates point to the decline as evidence wolves have been allowed to run amok in the region — eating their way through a herd that once supported a vibrant hunting-based economy in Yellowstone-area communities such as Cody and Gardiner, Mont.
Outfitter Jake Clark of Powell said both wolves and grizzlies need to be hunted.
Clark operates Wyoming Wilderness Outfitters. He closed his Sunlight Basin hunting camp as elk populations dropped, a move he said cost him $100,000 a year. That’s money spent by hunters that turned over several times locally each year, he said.
“It was a tremendous area” for hunting elk, he said, but “the wolves and grizzly bear have decimated the herds.”
Clark is not opposed to sharing the wilderness with wolves and grizzlies, but believes there are too many of both.
“That’s just my position as an outfitter,” he said. “They need to be hunted. They need to be managed.”
Wyoming officials need to get wolves and grizzlies removed from Endangered Species Act protection, he said.
“I was hopeful for it to happen 10 years ago. If not, in the near future, my great-grandkids will never hunt elk. There won’t be any left.”
The Yellowstone elk herd is in trouble beyond low numbers, Clark believes. With aging cows heading into winter each year, “I tell you, they’re going to have a big crash.” Older cows will winter kill and calf numbers are already desperately low, with only eight to nine calves per 100 cows.
Clark said grizzlies often prey on elk calves in their first month, “but I think they’re laying a bunch of blame for wolves on bears. We had bears, bunches of bears, up to 95” when wolves were reintroduced.
Hunting grizzlies and bears would teach them new strategy, Clark said. Wolves, especially, are widespread across Wyoming and need to be controlled, he said. He’d balance that with the thrill of seeing a wolf in the wild, the chance to show his clients a wolf, the possibility of sharing the mountain with a grizzly.
“They don’t have to decimate them,” Clark said, “but they have to hunt them.”
“There’s a reason our forefathers wiped them out,” he sad. “They’re fabulous hunters. They’re too good at what they do. They’re too efficient.”
(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)