Has Yellowstone Park wolf population growth ended?


The perception that the population of wolves in Yellowstone Park is not just going to continue to grow is slowly starting to dawn on some news media. The Livingston Enterprise ran a story this week "Wolves maxing out in Yellowstone Park area."

The Greater Yellowstone wolf population which is inside the Park and outside the Park in Wyoming and Montana continued to grow in 2002. It grew from 218 to about 275, but the wolf population inside the Park grew only from 131 to 148. Litter size was smaller for most packs and so was pup survival rates, although the details have not been released yet. If the Nez Perce Pack left the Park for good in December (current location unknown), the population change would be essentially zero.

Here are the figures for Yellowstone Park northern range wolves according to my analysis of USFWS data released in past years.

1999- 43 wolves. 2000- 78 wolves. 2001- 81 wolves. 2002- about 85 wolves (2002 count includes pups that might not have survived). Moreover, the Druid superpack broke up into a number of increasingly hostile packs and groups of wolves. At least 3 adult or sub-adult wolves were killed by other wolves in 2002 -- Leopold 2M and 7F, and a wolf from the Geode Pack.

I stress the northern range because that is the political flash point. There is an early and a late northern range elk hunt outside the Park, and hunters have generally had less success in recent years. The Park Service announced last week the northern range elk population might have declined to less than 10,000 by the end of 2002, from a high of over 19,000 in 1994. The biggest single decline was between the fall of 1996 and the spring of 1997, when adverse winter conditions killed over 4000 elk.

Anti-wolf people like to blame the decline of elk numbers on wolves, but in fact the the elk are preyed on by wolves, bears, cougar, and coyotes. The current drought began in late 1999. The influences on elk numbers are complicated, but the drought has to be a major factor. People shouldn't have to be reminded that during a drought, the grass and forbs don't grow as tall, and they have less nutritional value per pound. On the other hand, the elk do not have to spend as much energy struggling through deep snow in the droughty winters. There might also be competition between elk and bison. The number of the bison has recovered substantially from the big 1996-7 die-off/Montana DOL bison slaughter.


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