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Wolves kill 19 elk near Bondurant, Wyo.

19 elk lay dead Friday on the McNeel Elk Feedground near Bondurant. Wolves killed 17 calves and two cows in what is called a surplus killing, where more animals are killed than can be eaten.

CASPER, Wyo. — A pack of wolves killed 19 elk Tuesday night on the McNeel Elk Feedground near Bondurant in an event not seen before in Wyoming.

Wolves regularly kill elk on some of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s 22 feedgrounds, said Pinedale regional wildlife supervisor John Lund, but never in this quantity. Of the 19 elk, 17 were calves and two were cows.

“We have had a lot of wolf predation on elk throughout our feedgrounds the last several years,” Lund said. “This year has been significant, especially at that feedground. We’re estimating between 70 and 75 elk have been killed this year.”

Wolves are protected in Wyoming by the Endangered Species Act, which means the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for managing the animals. Options for the feds are limited, Lund said.

It could be what is called a surplus killing, Lund said, where wolves kill more animals than they can eat in a night.

The carcasses were moved off of the hay field on the feedground where they were killed.

Killing to this degree hasn’t happened before in Wyoming, at least in recent memory, said Ken Mills, Game and Fish’s large-carnivore biologist, who helped manage wolves when the state had control over the animals from September 2012 to September 2014.

"These events usually occur when some other factor specifically increases the vulnerability of their prey," he said. "That could be snow, that could be disease, that could be habitat structure, for example."

He remembers seeing something similar with a pack of five wolves in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 2001. The wolves pushed a herd of deer into a clearing in deep snow, and each wolf killed a deer.

"They're like a person living day to day, getting enough to survive. When prey is vulnerable, they don't have that mechanism to stop," Mills said. "Killing is how they survive. If someone is barely making it day to day and they walk into a buffet, they're going to eat like it's a buffet."

The elk carcasses will be tested for disease, but Lund doesn’t think they were weak from illnesses.

Most elk herds around Pinedale are close to Game and Fish’s objective or slightly over. The Hoback Herd, which is the one that winters on the McNeel feedground, is currently at objective. Lund is concerned this winter’s kills could hurt the herd’s numbers.

Follow Managing Editor Christine Peterson on Twitter @PetersonOutside.