Poor flight conditions and the loss of a helicopter to repairs hampered this year’s count of the much-watched Northern Yellowstone elk herd, according to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.
As a result, the data is not considered thorough enough to be compared to previous years to detect a rise or fall in the herd’s numbers.
The survey dates back to 1986 and is closely monitored by hunters and wildlife advocates as a sign of the elk population’s vitality in the face of disease outbreaks and a predator-rich environment.
The numbers are also used by FWP officials to guide regulation setting for hunter harvests.
Although incomplete, a classification survey flight conducted on March 24 north of Yellowstone counted 4,372 elk, of which 2,772 elk were classified by age and sex. Based on the sample, the population was estimated at 24 calves and 12 bulls per 100 cows.
“These ratios aren’t representative of the entire herd, but I’m guessing we were able to survey most of the herd,” said Karen Loveless, FWP wildlife biologist in Livingston, noting that about 70 to 80 percent of the Yellowstone elk migrate into Montana.
This year’s ratios are higher than recent survey results within the same area. The 2013 count observed 19 calves and 10 bulls per 100 cows, and 11 calves and five bulls per 100 cows in 2012. A total of 3,915 elk were observed last year.
Twenty calves per 100 cows is considered the survival threshold for elk. Below that wildlife managers are concerned and above that the herd should grow.
“Actually, it’s really encouraging,” Loveless said, considering that not all of the elk were counted. “It’s on the low end to see an increase, but it’s close to stable.”
The other thing of note, Loveless said, is that the bull ratios remain dominated by young spikes, the reason for FWP’s restrictive permit-only hunts in the districts north of the park.
The Cooperative Wildlife Working Group — made up of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, U.S. Geological Survey, Yellowstone National Park and the Forest Service — conducts the two annual surveys of elk: an elk count that estimates abundance, and a classification survey that estimates sex ratios and calf-cow ratios.
In past years the classification flight was conducted across the entire Northern Range, including elk winter range within Yellowstone National Park and north of the park in Montana.
The annual winter count of the northern herd was attempted on Feb. 26. The surveyors, using three airplanes, encountered windy conditions over Dome Mountain — a popular elk winter range — and a portion of Yellowstone National Park.
In the abbreviated flights, 2,063 elk, including 476 elk within Yellowstone National Park and 1,587 elk north of the park in Montana, were counted.
A follow-up abundance survey by helicopter was not possible as the state’s aircraft was being repaired and that’s the only one equipped with a radio that can communicate with Yellowstone, which the park requires for safety’s sake. To rent a helicopter would have cost three times as much.
Although the traditional abundance survey could not be completed, data collected during the Yellowstone elk classification survey suggest that the Northern Range elk population is at least similar to 2013.