Elk Bugles

An elk bugles outside of Gardiner near Yellowstone National Park.

State and federal biologists say elk numbers in the northern part of Yellowstone National Park and the parts of Montana just outside have stabilized after a long-term decline, and that most of those elk migrate into Montana.

Results from the most recent Northern Yellowstone Wildlife Working Group elk survey were released on Monday, showing that state and federal biologists counted 5,349 elk in Yellowstone’s northern range and areas near Gardiner earlier this month. That’s a 9 percent increase over 2016, the highest number they’ve counted since 2010 and the third consecutive year the count surpassed 4,800, leading biologists to say the elk have rebounded from a significant decline that began in the mid 1990s.

“We’ve come up from that low point and the last three years the herd has seemed to be pretty stable,” said Karen Loveless, an area biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The number is considered a minimum count — biologists counted only the elk that they saw, and there may be more that they did not see. Doug Smith, a biologist with Yellowstone, said the margin of error varies, but that there might be as much as 30 percent more elk than they counted. Still, they are confident the count means elk are doing relatively well there.

It’s still a far cry from where the population was in 1994, when biologists counted 19,000 there. But in the following years, the animal’s number there plummeted, reaching a low point in 2013, when biologists counted 3,900. The decline coincided with the reintroduction of wolves to the region, which many blame for the drastic decline in elk numbers.

Loveless and other biologists caution against giving wolves too much credit for the decline, saying there were other factors besides the canine predators alone. But she did say the stabilization of the elk population in recent years could be a sign that some sort of balance has been struck in that predator-prey relationship. Since 2008, the number of wolves in the region has declined significantly. Meanwhile, elk numbers have inched upward.

“We do know wolf numbers are lower than what they were,” she said. “We might be at a point of better equilibrium between the wolves and the elk.”

But a decline in wolves doesn’t mean the elk have no pressure from predators. Smith said while wolves have declined, they haven’t disappeared and are likely still putting pressure on elk. And, he said, the animals still face dangers from cougars and both grizzly and black bears.

“This is quite interesting ... that with these predators elk are doing as well as they are,” Smith said.

Aside from a stable population, the biologists also noted a significant change in the way elk are using the land — more of them are migrating into Montana. Of the 5,349 elk that biologists saw during their counts earlier this month, more than 4,776 were outside of Yellowstone National Park — an increase of nearly 1,000 over 2016.

It’s the highest number they’ve seen outside of the park during their winter counts since 2002, when there were more than twice as many elk. But this year is significant because the number seen outside of the park makes up about 89 percent of the herd, the largest portion they’ve seen migrate out of the park.

Records included in the report show that it was normal for 40 percent or more of the elk to spend winters inside the park. But in the last five years, that has been changing. Before 2017’s count, biologists recorded 77 percent of their elk sightings outside of Yellowstone for four consecutive years.

“Things have flip-flopped,” Smith said. “A lot more elk used to winter in Yellowstone.”

But biologists can’t point to a definitive reason why the elk are migrating out in greater number. Harsher winter conditions can push elk to lower elevations outside of the park, but Loveless said this winter hasn’t been especially tough on the animals. Smith said it could be because of threats from predator species and the lack of a late season elk hunt in the state hunting districts along the park’s border.

Either way, Loveless said it could be the source of conflicts between landowners there and the state’s wildlife agency.

“That’s going to be a concern for those folks that live up there,” Loveless said. “We’ll continue to work with those people with all the tools we have to reduce conflicts.”

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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