Winter Count Shows Yellowstone Northern Elk Herd Numbers Remain Stable

Stability not unexpected as wolf numbers fall and hunting permits just north of Park are reduced-

In January I heard there would be no elk count this year because the lack of snow made counting pretty much impossible. I’m glad the amount of snow increased because these numbers are important. Gaps in the data are harmful.

Wolves were introduced in 1995 shortly after the highest elk population ever recorded on the Northern Range in 1993-94 (19,045 elk).  Unfortunately, no elk count was made during the very severe winter of 1995-6 and the next year too.  When the count resumed, the elk  population was well down (13,400 in Nov. 1997).

I think the real (wolf x hunter x grizzly bear) effect on elk should date from when they resumed the count. Unfortunately, it is not known how many perished in the severe winter and the year just afterword. Interestingly, the elk count taken 3 months before the first wolves came back had already dropped from 19,045 to 16,791. This shows that 19,045 was a spike and should never be used as a starting point.

I think the restored wolf population did probably overshoot, but it has now died back naturally rather than through human interference.

My impression is that the present elk and wolf population on the Northern Range is pretty favorable, although these numbers can never be stable over any long period time. Nature has too many variables.  At any rate, the elk herd is strong and healthy.  The vegetation on the Northern Range is recovering. Pronghorn, beaver, and, I think bighorn, are increasing. These things were part of the goals of the wolf restoration in the Park. Of course, the Park is always changing. For example, like almost everywhere else, the pines are being killed of by the bark beetle. The Park’s near future will be a landscape even more open than today.

Here is the elk count news release from the Northern Yellowstone Cooperative Wildlife Working Group

Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks – Contact:  Kelly Profitt 406-994-4042
National Park Service – Contact: Doug Smith 307-344-2242
U.S. Forest Service – Contact: Dan Tyers 406-848-7375
U.S. Geological Survey-  Contact: Paul Cross 406-994-6908

March 17, 2010
News Release. Winter Count Shows Northern Elk Herd Numbers Remain Stable

A lot of folks seem to forget that the Northern Range elk herd is not the only elk herd in Yellowstone Park. There are about 8 others at least partially in the Park, and they are not are going in the same direction. Most significant is the Jackson Hole elk herd which summers partly in the Park. The Jackson elk herd is categorized into four geographic groups. They are southern Yellowstone, the Teton Wilderness, the Gros Ventre and Grand Teton National Park.

It’s population is close to 12,000 and is stable despite a lot of wolf packs. It is actually 6% above Wyoming Game and Fish’s “objectives” size. Recently, however, Wyoming Game and Fish has begun to break it down into herd sub-units and set objectives for them too.  A lot of folks find this both offensive and unworkable.  It is offensive because setting objectives tell us that wild animals (elk) are being treated like livestock.  The smaller the livestock (elk) unit, the more hands on kind of management it takes to meet these objectives because natural variations don’t match up with politically created boundaries.

Use of sub-units also lets people “cherry pick” numbers and say things like, well maybe elk numbers are up or stable, but they are down where I hunt. Or they might just ignore subunits that match their political agenda. For example, much has been made that the calf to cow ratio in the Upper Gros Ventre is only 13 calves per 100 cow elk. It is not mentioned that in the lower Gros Ventre the ratio is 41 calves to 100 cows.

Note: I think Idaho Fish and Game does the same thing — they highlight hunting units where numbers are down and never mention those where they are up despite a lot of wolves.




  1. Cindy Avatar

    Thank you for the Elk information Ralph:)

  2. Ed Darrell Avatar

    Can you offer some more information about “lack of snow?” Generally the U.S. got hammered this year. Did B.C.’s lack of snow extend as far west as Montana? How bad was it? Did you get enough late winter snow to make up for the early lack?

    I’m curious for climate change discussions, selfishly. Still, if you can offer some information, I’d appreciate it.

  3. Save Bears Avatar
    Save Bears


    I have been in the back country of Montana, Idaho and Washington in the last 3 months and I can tell you, there is no snow to really speak of, the place I stay in Montana normally has about 5-6 feet of snow on the ground in January and when I returned around the first part of January, it had about a foot, Bozeman was very low snow as was Great Falls and Billings, Sandpoint has flowers blooming already, the Columbia River Gorge area up in the Mountains above the Gorge is greening up real well, no snow and Mount Hood has not had much snow either.

    Right now, it looks very bleak for river levels this year, My wife was on the phone with her cousin in Florence, MT and Her Uncle in Lincoln, MT this week and they are saying the snow is just not there this year and expects that fishing this year will be very poor due to low water levels and higher river temps, one lives on the Blackfoot and the other on the Bitterroot..

    Looks like unless we have a strong spring rain season, things could get dicey this year..

    1. Ed Darrell Avatar

      Fascinating to me that there’s been so little coverage down here, and nationally. Thanks.

      This is a public forum, of course — but let me warn you I may quote you at my blog.

    2. Ralph Maughan Avatar

      Ed Darrell,

      It was a classic El Nino winter with the storm track moving south, producing a very wet winter in places that usually do not get a lot of snow/winter rain. I know this gave the perception that the whole country was cold and even the planet cooling, but in fact in the Pacific Northwest including Montana, it was cold (not all that cold) and DRY.

      This current SNOTEL MAP shows the snow situation in the West. . It shows no snow in Southern California, but the deserts are way above normal precipitation, but snowless except for the narrow high ridges.

  4. ProWolf in WY Avatar
    ProWolf in WY

    You mean the wolves didn’t decimate the herds?

  5. Save Bears Avatar
    Save Bears


    Your more than welcome to quote me, I have no problem with that.

    It has been a very interesting year in the northern areas of the country this year, I would have to say, probably the smallest amount of snow I have seen in 15 years..

  6. Kayla Avatar

    Now since am commenting, this is Great News! I have not heard much on this Northern Elk herd for quite sometime and good to hear it is stable. Also just hope we get some moisture sometime and we don’t have some big fires this year.

  7. Angela Avatar

    The lack of snow this year is likely due to the fact that we are in an El Nino year.
    There is another cycle affecting climate right now too, I just can’t remember the name offhand. None of these climate cycles should be used to support or deny longer-term climate change, and there are more than most people know of.

  8. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    One’s particular starting reference point in population history is often critical in classifying a glass as half empty or half full. My beginning reference point, after moving to the park in the 1965 in the midst of the elk reductions, suggests that over 6,000 isn’t too bad – especially if it’s bottoming. Even that number was too many then, or so they said at the time. Here’s a newspaper quote from the superintendent in Spring 1967: “McLaughlin estimated another 400 elk should still be removed from the 4,600 remaining in the herd”. There were stories about the “Gardiner firing line” but it was pretty well over when I arrived and there was no winter hunting before I left in 1975. People just hunted elk in the fall while the herd in the park grew larger and larger.

    In one tough winter, so much carrion went down (estimated at 1,500 head) that much was never consumed by scavengers and there were mummified-looking elk laying around in green grass into the summer. The coyotes boomed and began running in larger groups. Few sheep lambs or pronghorn fawns survived. Sick, scabied looking elk died slow deaths in the bottoms of draws.

    During Christmas break from college in January 1976, I experienced the very first morning of the reincarnation of the Gardiner firing line with a high school friend who had drawn a permit. Climbing above the Gardiner airstrip, we found ourselves hiding behind rocks below a forest of antlers (about 150 very bewildered bulls) with a large group of hunters strung along the road in the travertines firing down.

    I know local hunting families who’ve very much appreciated the winter hunts. Another thing I noticed, that at first seemed inconsistent, was that even as the wintering herd remained very large (and apparently over-populated), my friends’ success in the traditional fall hunt above Gardiner seemed to decline to the point where, for a few years at least, they thought it was hardly worth hunting elk. I began to wonder if maybe hunters were double-dipping the resident population in both traditional and winter hunts to the point where so many of the old cows were killed off that elk just weren’t migrating back up there in the spring and therefore weren’t available in the fall hunt.

    I certainly appreciate productive ungulate populations (although productive and large aren’t always synonymous). However, managing the northern Yellowstone herd to provide the level of surplus that it did at times during the decades when wolves were absent (and grizzlies few, and the Park Service not killing or transplanting elk) came at a cost, and is not realistic to expect again. To the extent that restoring more winter hunting is realistic, hunters might consider promoting out-of-park migration of bison, which are more resistant to predators and are no doubt benefiting somewhat from moderate elk numbers. Perhaps control of predators is appropriate. DOL predators.

  9. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins


    I’m not sure that the identification of sub herd units in the Jackson Elk Herd necessarily reflects a political agenda on the part of G&F against wolves. It’s a lot more complicated than that.

    I’m no fan of the management of the JEH, as you well know, but the breakdown into sub herds had already long since occurred when I got here 18 years ago. This breakdown was pretty much driven by the creation of Grand Teton National Park in 1950, set in the context of the creation of the National Elk Refuge in 1912 and the beginning of elk feeding.

    We’re approaching a century of feeding of the JEH in Jackson Hole. The feeding program radically altered the migration and distribution of Jackson elk. Throw on top of the construct of the JEH through the feedground regime the imposition of a national park on Jackson Hole in 1950 with its schizophrenic hunting regime–hunting allowed west of the Snake in the Park, but prohibited east of the Snake, and then hunting again permitted on the Refuge. It’s a perfect example of rationalization become irrational.

    After a century of intellectualizing, fragmenting, and obstructing the natural flow of elk in NW Wyoming, the JEH really is four separate herds that just happen to end up on the Refuge during the winter.

    Therefore I don’t think it’s worthwhile conceptualizing Jackson elk as a single herd any more. The argument over wolves and sub herd objectives simply proves that.

    Of course, objectives themselves are BS. In his 1958 study, The Elk of Jackson Hole, Chester Anderson, a biologist for the WGFD, agreed, arguing that we should instead focus on improving and maintaining habitat and then let animal populations “calibrate” themselves. Quite a revolutionary proposal for its time.


  10. H. Craig Bradley Avatar
    H. Craig Bradley


    What is not discussed about the decline in Jackson Hole Elk Herd numbers from any cause (mortality factors) is economic impact. Traditionally, Wyoming has been pro-hunting. This means they are indirectly pro-business (tourism) and pro-outfitting. To ignore economic impacts in small, seasonal rural communities makes little sense. Our Federal government is tone deaf.

    An outfitting business can only make money if its hunters are successful. The mere experience of “recreation days” (Colorado Division of Wildlife term) is not adequate when you are paying non-resident prices to harvest big game. Outfitters everywhere MUST produce, or their business income eventually declines. Business income directly affects the sum value of the business should it be offered for sale in the open market.

    If Elk populations in the Gros Ventre Elk herd subset are declining because of wolf and grizzly bear predation, as well as other causes (winter mortality), then outfitters will have more difficulty filling game tags. Elk is their bread and butter.

    If fewer hunters can afford to hunt out-of-state and fewer hunters in certain drainages on the Bridger-Teton are less successful, then the value of an outfitter’s business may suffer decline, as well. If the owner needs to sell, he may end up selling for less money when elk herds are down. Less money in the community hurts the local economy. Its deflationary.

    Therefore, there is an economic tie-in between the operating funds Fish and Game receives from the sale of hunting licenses and the amount of habitat management they can afford to do. Fish and Game efforts can result in more or less elk numbers, depending on their funding and associated habitat projects. As it stands now, the future of some Jackson Hole Elk Hunting Outfitters is in possible jeopardy.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar

      H. Craig Bailey,

      There has been no decline in elk numbers in or around Jackson Hole.

      The Jackson Hole News and Guide shows the elk herds to be above Wyoming Game and Fish “objectives.” This was discussed in the post below.

      Jackson Hole News: WY Elk numbers way above objectives


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox