For the third year in a row wildlife officials have counted roughly the same number of elk in the Northern Yellowstone herd, signaling a stabilized population after a relatively steady 20-year decline, starting when wolves were reintroduced into the ecosystem in 1995.
“What we can say from this survey, looking at the big picture, is that it’s a really abundant herd,” said Karen Loveless, the Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist in Livingston. “The herd has stabilized. It’s no longer in decline. I feel confident in saying that because the number has been around 5,000 for three years. We’re also seeing improved recruitment.”
The elk counts were conducted on Jan. 15 by the Northern Yellowstone Cooperative Wildlife Working Group — which includes biologists from FWP, Yellowstone National Park, the Forest Service and U.S. Geological Survey. The counts showed 5,349 elk, including 573 elk inside Yellowstone National Park and 4,776 elk north of the park.
The 2017 count was 9 percent higher than the 2016 survey results of 4,912 elk, and was 37 percent higher than the lowest count of 3,915 elk in 2013. The 2014 count was lower but is believed to be inaccurate. This year’s count of 5,349 was the highest in seven years.
During good surveys it’s estimated that up to 91 percent of the elk are counted. On average the surveys have detected 75 percent of the population.
“It seems like we might be hitting an equilibrium that provides stability,” Loveless said. “That’s what we’re striving for.”
Another noteworthy outcome of the survey was that more elk — 89 percent of those counted — were seen north of the Yellowstone National Park boundary. In the past four years the average outmigration has been around 77 percent, Loveless said.
The report from Loveless indicated several possibilities for more elk migrating out of the park, including: “increased vulnerability of elk at higher elevations to predation and lower recruitment to replace these animals, as well as higher survival of elk outside the park following reductions in antlerless harvest and higher recruitment in the lower-elevation portions of the northern range compared to higher-elevation areas.”
Of the elk that Loveless counted, she saw more in smaller groups — some up relatively high, indicating that snow cover may not be a reason for more elk migrating out of the park — and more elk farther north than she’s seen in the past seven years that she’s been conducting the survey. The largest group spotted numbered more than 500 head.
With the number of elk increasing, FWP is reaching the top end of its population objective for Hunting District 313 north of the park — which has been set at between 3,000 and 5,000 elk.
As more elk move out of the park and the population slowly grows, FWP continues to employ three hazers to keep elk and cattle separated to reduce the chances that elk exposed to brucellosis may transmit the virus to cattle. The agency also allows management hunts to remove elk as a way to move them off property. Last year eight elk were killed in what’s known as elk management removals, or EMRs.
“We expect to use it again, but we want to use it strategically,” Loveless said. “The elk need to learn there’s an area where they aren’t safe.”
To help FWP understand how effective its different methods are for keeping elk and cattle apart, the agency will begin a study in February using 40 GPS-collared elk to see how they move, how far they move and how long they stay away. The data could also show if the elk mingling with cattle are residents or migrants, as well as where they go to give birth to calves. Infected birthing material is believed to be the main cause of brucellosis transmission.
The January survey estimates overall elk numbers and population trends. A March survey will estimate calf recruitment and bull ratios.
Also by March, FWP should have harvest data available from the hunting district. Last season the agency limited the bull elk hunt in its final two weeks to 50 permit holders in an attempt to cut the bull harvest. Unlimited brow-tined bull elk hunting was allowed during the first three weeks of the season.
Loveless said it was her impression that mild weather meant few elk migrated from the park during the rifle season, meaning most of the harvest was concentrated on local elk.
The controversial reduction in hunter opportunity was initiated after FWP’s annual trend count showed the number of adult bulls per 100 cows counted in Montana fell to 2.7 last winter. FWP has set the ideal number at 10 per 100 cows. The last time the count for the herd was above 10 bulls per 100 cows was in 2002.