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2006 Winter Classification and Count of Northern Yellowstone Elk

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Date: April 6, 2006
Contact: Nash, (307) 344-2010
Contact: Vallie, (307) 344-2012

The Northern Yellowstone Cooperative Wildlife Working Group conducted its annual, late-winter classification of northern Yellowstone elk on March 23rd. Biologists traveled by helicopter to classify a total of 3,649 elk as bulls, cows, or calves in specified sampling areas through the entire northern winter range during the 1-day survey. Northern Yellowstone elk winter between the Northeast Entrance of Yellowstone National Park and Dome Mountain/Dailey Lake in the Paradise Valley.

Estimated sex and age ratios for the population were 24 calves and 20 bulls per 100 cows. Calf ratios averaged 20 calves per 100 cows inside the park (i.e., Gardiner to Lamar Valley) and 27 calves per 100 cows outside the park (i.e., Gardiner to Dome Mountain). The overall ratio of 24 calves per 100 cows is higher than the late-winter ratios of 12-14 calves per 100 cows during 2002-2005, and within the range of 22 to 34 calves per 100 cows observed during the previous six years.

P.J. White, biologist for Yellowstone National Park, indicated, "The increase in recruitment this year probably reflects less predation by wolves and, in part, a decrease in antlerless elk harvest.” An apparent disease outbreak reduced wolf numbers on the northern range by 40% during summer 2005. Also, Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks significantly reduced antlerless elk permits for the Gardiner Late Hunt over the last 5 years. Following Statewide Elk Management Plan criteria, the Late Hunt currently falls within a Restrictive Hunting Season framework, due primarily to 4 consecutive years of low recruitment.

Tom Lemke, biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, added, "Improved elk recruitment this winter is definitely good news, but it will probably take at least another good recruitment year to move back into a Standard Hunting Season package. However, this year’s data on recruitment, harvest, migration size, and winter distribution may allow for a modest increase in antlerless permits within the existing Restrictive Season framework for the January, 2007 Gardiner Late Hunt.” Final elk permit quotas will be set by the Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Commission in July, 2006.

Due to a lack of snow cover and unusually windy conditions, the Northern Yellowstone Cooperative Working Group was unable to complete the annual winter trend count of northern Yellowstone elk during the typical period in late December or early January. Biologists attempted to conduct a count on March 22, 2006, but elk inside the park were widely distributed at higher elevations and in timbered areas, which made detection of elk difficult and unreliable compared to previous winters. Thus, the count was considered poor and inaccurate, and results are not comparable to surveys during good conditions in previous years. White stated “It was a frustrating winter and, unfortunately, we were unable to get a good count of the elk during the typical count period in December and January. We’ll certainly shoot for a good count next winter and, hopefully, see an increase in elk numbers if recruitment remains higher for another year.”

The Working Group will continue to monitor trends of the elk population and evaluate the relative contribution of various components of mortality, including predation, environmental factors, and hunting. The Working Group was formed in 1974 to cooperatively preserve and protect the long-term integrity of the northern Yellowstone winter range for wildlife species by increasing our scientific knowledge of the species and their habitats, promoting prudent land management activities, and encouraging an interagency approach to answering questions and solving problems. The Working Group is comprised of resource managers and biologists from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, National Park Service ( Yellowstone National Park), U.S. Forest Service ( Gallatin National Forest), and U.S. Geological Survey ( Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center).

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