When Europeans first set foot into the West-and Yellowstone country-- they found an abundance of game unlike anything in the world, particularly in the Old World, where wild animals were confined to the estates of royalty. There, only the landed gentry could hunt. The New World was very much different-game in the form of antelope, elk, mule deer, whitetail deer and bison stretched across the horizon. And, the hunting was free to anyone who could afford a rifle and ammunition. Thus began one of the most tremendous slaughters of wild animals in the history of mankind. It is estimated that 70 million bison were slaughtered in the period between about 1820 and 1880. Other ungulates were also slaughtered, and, by the 1880s, almost all of the elk had been shot off of the plains, while the mountains gave refuge to a few.
For many early adventurers, the slaughter was no big deal. But, as early as the 1830s, some farsighted individuals, such as the artist George Catlin, advised that the nation should set aside a huge national park for the preservation of native animals and Native Americans. No one acted on Catlin's idea until 1872, when Yellowstone National Park was set aside. Yet at 2.2 million acres, the park was a micro-version of what Catlin had in mind. Even as early as 1880, there were movements to expand the park; Gen. Phil Sheridan wanted to move the park boundary forty miles east and some miles south for game winter range. Although Sheridan's idea never came to pass, today the country all around Yellowstone benefits from the park's pristine wildlife resource. Elk, in particular, are one of the main migrants. In fact, most of the park's elk migrate outside the park every year, or migrate back and forth between the park boundary and public and private lands around it. Boundaries on a map mean nothing to wild animals.
In 1883, in response to dwindling herds both in and outside the park, the park was officially closed to hunting. Prior to this time, Yellowstone had been a hunting ground for mostly elite sportsmen such as the Earl of Dunraven, who shot many elk inside the park's boundaries before it was closed to hunting. Even then, the ban on hunting protected only the park's game animals; predators were still shot and even poisoned. Later, protections were added for all animals. Outside the park, state wildlife agencies also provided new protections to wild animals, by regulating hunting, establishing bag limits and season dates. The wildlife bounced back.
Today, hunting provides an important function both biologically and economically in the Yellowstone region. Each year, the local and state economies of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, get a much-needed influx of cash from hunters who travel from around the world to hunt on private and public lands around Yellowstone. In such places, hunters pay for license fees that wholly support the state wildlife management agencies, but they also contribute much more. Yellowstone lodging, guide services, meals, sporting goods…the list of items needed for hunting is a long one and one that is vital to the economic health of the region.
Biologically, hunting also provides a service because hunters take the harvestable surplus, particularly of elk. Areas south and west of Yellowstone, for example, are areas that have both resident and migrating elk. In the fall, if a hunter takes an elk that normally summers in the Yellowstone country, the hunter is helping keep the population in balance with the ecosystem. Before the introduction of wolves into the park, many people thought that elk numbers were unnaturally high. Even today, some biologists still feel that elk numbers are too high for the range.
On the so-called Northern Range, elk migrate north into lower country in Montana, where hunting is also legal. In the later season, hunters take primarily cow elk, which help wildlife managers maintain the balance in herd numbers.
Approximately 10,000 elk winter on the Northern Range, while to the south, on the National Elk Refuge outside Jackson, Wyoming, some 7,500 elk winter. Other herds migrate to the North Fork of the Shoshone outside Cody, Wyoming, to Carter Mountain outside Meeteetse, Wyoming, to the Clark's Fork of the Yellowstone River north of Cody, to the Gallatin Range outside Bozeman, Montana, and into the Sand Creek country outside Rexburg, Idaho. All of these elk spend part or all of their summer in the Yellowstone region. In total, about 30,000 elk summer in Yellowstone, while 15-20,000 elk spend the winter in the park. Only one herd, the Firehole-Madison herd, spends its entire year inside the park's boundaries and this herd numbers approximately 800.