Yellowstone Elk Count
by Yellowstone National Park
January 22, 2007
The Northern Yellowstone Cooperative Wildlife Working Group conducted its annual winter survey of the northern Yellowstone elk population on December 30, 2006. A total of 6,738 elk were counted during good survey conditions. Approximately two-thirds of the observed elk were located within Yellowstone National Park, and one-third was located north of the park boundary.
This year’s count of 6,738 elk was similar to the count of 6,588 elk in March 2006, but significantly lower than the 9,545 elk counted in January 2005.
“This decrease in counted elk likely reflects the continuing effects of predation by wolves and other large carnivores, as well as decreased detection of elk within Yellowstone due to anti-predation behaviors such as smaller group sizes, increased dispersion of groups, and increased use of forested habitats, making them more difficult to locate,” according to P.J. White, biologist for Yellowstone National Park.
Biologists used three fixed-wing aircraft to count elk through the entire northern range during the one-day survey. The northern Yellowstone elk herd winters between the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park and Dome Mountain/Dailey Lake in the Paradise Valley.
“It appears that elk distribution has changed in recent years with elk numbers north of Yellowstone Park leveling off at between 3,200-4,000 elk, while elk numbers wintering inside the park may be decreasing,” according to Tom Lemke, biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.
“In an effort to reduce hunter mortality on female elk, FWP has reduced the number of antlerless Late Elk Hunt permits over the last several years. For the last 2 years only 100 antlerless permits have been issued,” said Lemke. “At the current level of harvest, recreational hunting has very little impact on elk numbers in a population of several thousand animals. Hunting has basically been removed as a significant factor regulating northern Yellowstone elk numbers.”
The State Elk Plan calls for a winter population objective of 3,000-5,000 elk north of Yellowstone with 2,000-3,000 of those animals wintering on or near the state-owned Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area (WMA). In the last 4 years, an estimated total of 3,200-4,000 elk have wintered in the area with 2,100-2,800 elk using the Dome Mountain WMA.
By the end of this winter, biologists expect elk numbers north of the park to remain within the management objectives. In contrast, during the late 1990s, 5,300-8,600 elk wintered north of the park with 3,500-4,500 elk in the Dome Mountain area. Wintering such large numbers of elk could lead to long-term habitat decline and increase the likelihood of game damage problems on private land.
The Working Group was formed in 1983 to cooperatively preserve and protect the long-term integrity of the northern Yellowstone winter range for wildlife species by increasing our scientific knowledge of the species and their habitats, promoting prudent land management activities, and encouraging an interagency approach to answering questions and solving problems.
The Working Group is comprised of resource managers and biologists from the Montana Fish, Wildlife, & Parks, National Park Service (Yellowstone National Park), U.S. Forest Service (Gallatin National Forest), and U.S. Geological Survey-Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, Bozeman, Montana.