Due to the steady decline the northern Yellowstone elk herd, state wildlife officials are proposing a significant reduction in permits for the late-season hunt on Yellowstone National Park's northern boundary near Gardiner.
For the 2005 hunting season, Montanan Fish, Wildlife & Parks is proposing to issue 100 antlerless elk permits, down from the 1,100 permits offered this season. An additional 48 either-sex elk permits, down from 80 this year, would also be offered.
"The proposed reduction is in response to a continual decrease in the size of the northern Yellowstone elk herd and to chronically poor calf recruitment since 2000," said Kurt Alt, FWP's wildlife manager in Bozeman.
The proposal will be aired at FWP's Region 3 meetings in January when this and other southwestern Montana tentative hunting regulations will be discussed.
The northern Yellowstone elk population reached an all-time high of about 19,000 in 1994. Prior to the introduction of wolves in 1995, the elk population was able to maintain itself at relatively high levels and showed relatively quick rebounds when affected by naturally occurring events like droughts, severe winters and catastrophic fires. "By adding another year-round mouth to feed, wolves have changed the elk population dynamics," Alt said.
Elk numbers counted each December have steadily declined from 14, 538 in 2000 to 8,335 in 2003. Officials expect the elk population to drop below 8,000 this year. "Although this population has gone through fluctuations, we've never documented a decline like this one," Alt said.
In addition, calf recruitment, the number of calves that survive for one year, also dropped. During the past three years, only 12 to 14 calves per 100 cows were recruited into the adult population, a rate that cannot sustain the current population.
Research in Yellowstone National Park and the Gardiner area suggest that the downward trend will continue for several years because elk there are being killed by a number of predators, including wolves, bears, mountain lions, and coyotes. Early results of one study show that about 70 percent of elk calves marked by researchers in the spring are dead due to predation by the end of September. Grizzly bears and black bears are the primary predator in June and July. In fall and winter, when wolf packs are more mobile with older pups, wolf predation becomes the dominant factor throughout the remainder of the year. On going wolf predation work conducted during winter on the Northern Range shows that about 41 percent of the elk killed are calves.
Officials also say the recent string of drought years contributed to reduced calf recruitment in nearly all of Montana's elk populations, but as conditions improved so have calf-recruitment rates in most areas.
"That hasn't happened in the northern Yellowstone or in upper Gallatin herds," Alt said. "That ecosystem is impressive and dynamic as any in the world. The density of wolves in the northern portion of Yellowstone National Park is one of the highest recorded in North America. And we know grizzly bear populations are also at relatively high levels. To put it simply, wolves and bears are eating elk and affecting the current population trend."
Although FWP has gradually reduced antlerless elk permits from 2,880 to 1,100 since 2000, a substantial reduction is necessary. Hunters are expected to harvest 400-450 adult cow elk this winter.
"With fewer antlerless elk hunting permits, there will be less pressure on female elk," Alt said. "Hunter harvest is the only part the equation FWP can influence."