Yellowstone Elk Numbers Decreased 10% in 2012

Predator attacks, a hard winter, and hunting has resulted in a 10% decrease in the Northern Yellowstone elk herd in 2012
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Elk in Yellowstone. Photo by Jeff Vanuga

Elk in Yellowstone. Photo by Jeff Vanuga

According to state and federal scientists, the population of a major elk herd that migrates between Yellowstone National Park and Montana is down by 10 percent in 2012 (in 2011 the herd saw a 24% drop). The 2012 numbers are roughly, 4,174 elk in the herd. Experts attribute the drop in population to the cumulative effects of predator attacks, a difficult winter, and hunters.

The herd’s population peaked in 1992, when an estimated 20,000 elk roamed the park. That was just a few years before park officials reintroduced wolves to the area. Since the wolves’ return—they had been absent for decades—elk population levels have returned to historic averages.

However, Yellowstone biologist Doug Smith says that the wolves cannot be blamed entirely for the decline of the elk herd. The wolves' populations have been decreasing as well, from 94 in 2007 down to 38 in 2011. Smith blames the elements: "This was one of the hardest winters we've had in decades,” he told the Associated Press (via TheRepublic.com). “We've got a leaner, meaner elk herd."

Montana Wildlife officials will instate a new permit system as a way to dissuade hunters from killing members of the Northern Yellowstone herd. There will be unlimited numbers of the $9 permits, but experts expect the new requirement to be a deterrent.

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