Wolves and Wyoming elk numbers

2-28-2003, additional data 3-9-03

I recently did a story on wolves and the number of elk on the Yellowstone northern range, but the same alarm about wolves "decimating" elk herds has been a rallying cry for anti-wolf legislation in Wyoming.

A look at official numbers in Wyoming shows a similar situation -- elk are on the decline whenever "wolf" is mentioned by wildlife politicians, but there is elk abundance or "overabundance" otherwise.

Every year the Wyoming Game and Fish Department make an annual report elk hunt report. In the most recent publicly-released report (2001), WGFD reports an estimated Wyoming elk population of 105,868, the large majority in Western Wyoming where all of the wolves are. At the same time the WGF commission, which makes policy for the Department, has set a population objective of 78,235 elk. So the total number of Wyoming elk is 35% OVER their objective.

2001 marked the 7th year in row there were more than 100,000 elk in Wyoming. Wolves were reintroduced in 1995, with the first packs outside Yellowstone in Wyoming forming in 1997. It should be noted that grizzly bear numbers too were growing outside of Yellowstone in Wyoming at the same time. Cougar numbers might have increased as well.

From 2001 Annual Report: 22,772 elk were legally taken. Total hunter success rate was 40%, which is about twice that in other states and provinces. Elk harvest for the previous 6 years was 1994:  24,534   1995: 17,695   1996: 20,612   1997: 23,175   1998: 22,586   1999:21,830    2000:23,727

Here are the 2001 elk hunter success rate in "hunt areas" where wolves are: Beartooth, 27%, Crandall, 38%, Clark's Fork, 45%, Sunlight, 11%, Dead Indian, 31%; Grinnell, 43%; Ishawooa, 49%; Boulder Basin, 46%, Elk Fork, 56%, Thorofare, 55%, South Greybull River, 57%, Wiggins Fork, 48%, Buffalo Fork, 37%, Blacktail, 69%, National Elk Refuge, 59%, Spread Creek, 34%, Crystal Peak, 40%, Raspberry Ridge, 35%. It should be noted that some of the loudest complaints about wolves come from the Thorofare hunt area in the Teton Wilderness adjacent to Yellowstone Park where the success rate was 55%. This is also where unethical outfitters bait elk out of the Park by creating artificial salt licks.

The failure of elk hunt success numbers to decline is amazing because there has been a 4 year drought and NW Wyoming elk herds full of brucellosis, which cause a 5-7% miscarriage rate.

Of course "harvest numbers" are not the same as herd size. There is evidence that the WGF commission has deliberately reduced the elk herd sizes near Dubois and Cody by special late hunts in response to ranchers' complaints of too many elk.

When it comes to wolves and Wyoming politics, there is too little media discussion of the dancing by the WGF commission, ranchers who don't like sharing the land with wolves or elk, and wolf blaming outfitters promote Wyoming's dangerous feedlot elk policy.

3-9-03. New data.

Wyoming Game and Fish made their annual Jackson Hole area elk count Feb. 25. The just released figures estimated 13,200 elk. The WGF goal is 11,000 elk.

On the National Elk Refuge, 6,992 elk were counted on feed. Last year there were 6,366. The goal is to have no more than 7,500 elk on feed. Recent winters have been mild. This winter has been too, although the mildness disappeared beginning about mid-February.

1,405 elk were counted adjacent to the National Elk Refuge. That made a total of 8,392 elk between Jackson, Wyoming on the south and Kelly on the north.

2,519 elk were counted on the controversial state feedgrounds in the Gros Ventre, upstream from the National Elk Refuge. This figure is slightly down from 2,621 last winter. 1,064 elk in the area were on natural winter range, up from 907 last winter.

The cow calf ratio was 20 calves per hundred, quite low, but the long term average is low, 24.4 from 1996-2001. Some attribute low ratios to wolves (although the first wolf pack appeared in the in the winter of 1998-1999). Others say it is due to the 4 year drought and the diseased condition (brucellosis) of the Jackson elk herds which causes pregnant cows to abort some of the elk fetuses.

Mike Jimenez of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who manages Wyoming wolves, just issued a report "Wolf/Elk Interactions on State Managed Feedgrounds in Wyoming."

Summarizing the results of 4 winter's investigations, Jimenez reported that his crew located 119 wolf-killed elk on or adjacent to the 3 state feedgrounds. 43% of the kills were cows, 4% bulls, and 53% calves. Of the adult elk killed, the mean age was 10 years. The oldest elk killed was 23 years.

Cow/calf ratios on the state feedgrounds varied widely over the period and show no correlation with the presence of wolves. Wolves recolonized the area in the winter of 1998-9.

Calf to 100 cow ratios

Year Gros Ventre drainage National Elk Refuge
1997 14.0 17.9
1998 17.0 16.7
1999 28.0 18.8
2000 29.0 24.8
2001 31.0 24.1
2002 17.0 20.1

Other new information is that WGF Department has conducted several special hunts to reduce cow and calf numbers in Sunlight hunt area and the Wiggins Fork hunt area. This was due to pressure from ranchers who thought the elk were eating grass that could better go to their cows.

These hunt areas are not part of the Jackson Hole area.


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Copyright © 2003 Ralph Maughan

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Ralph Maughan PO Box 8264, Pocatello, ID 83209
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