BILLINGS, Montana — A Northern Yellowstone elk herd that numbered 20,000 animals as recently as 1992 has now been decimated, in large part by the wolf introduction, and it now stands at just 4,174 animals, a decline of 80 percent!
The 20,000 population peak was just a few years before wolves were brought back from Canada, and while there was a hard winter or two involved, the majority of the decline has been attributed to the ever-growing wolf population.
The new information from wildlife agencies show the Northern Yellowstone elk herd is down to about 4,174 animals, a 10 percent drop from the prior year's count. That follows a 24 percent drop in 2011.
Outfitters, livestock owners and hunters outside the park contend that not enough is being done to curb killings by wolves, and that the hunting industry has suffered dramatically.
The Park Service has no set population target for the herd, but the latest counts have fallen below the target range of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, and the state wants between 3,000 and 5,000 elk in portions of Montana just north of the park. The latest count found 2,734 elk in that area.
To keep the herd from declining too far, Montana wildlife commissioners in February approved a new permit system for Northern Yellowstone elk. Although there are unlimited numbers of the $9 permits, the requirement is expected to reduce the number of hunters who come to the area, said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim.
Agency biologist Karen Loveless said despite the decline seen in this year's count there are signs the Northern Yellowstone herd could rebound. Loveless says the number of calves per cow elk appears to be on the increase, an indication that more of the animals survived than in past winters.
“I feel some encouragement in the long-term,'' Loveless said. “We sure would like to see it at least level off and I would like to see it coming back up. There is a possibility that could happen.''