The annual counting is part of a wildlife management process that attempts to balance the elk population with the need to maintain a healthy herd, provide food for the predator population, provide game animals for hunters, and protect an appropriate environment. In winter the elk herd is split between those wintering in the park (for example in and around the Lamar Valley), and those wintering north of the park boundary, principally in the Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area of Paradise Valley. This year it appears that the Northern Range herd (Yellowstone’s largest) is using the region north of the park more than ever, with some 3,200 to 4,000 in that area.
The Working Group has been closely following two problems for the herd – a relatively low rate of ‘recruitment’ (the survival of calves to adulthood) and a relatively low birth rate (measured as the number of calves born per 100 cows). Recruitment is greatly affected by predation, as predators prefer the calves as easy prey. Most years bears get the largest number of calves (about 50%), followed by wolves (12%) and coyotes (11%). In order to support recruitment, hunters have had severe restrictions on the taking of ‘antlerless’ (immature) elk the last few years. Current birth rates for the Northern Range are 19-24 calves per 100 cows, which is an improvement over the 12-14 per 100 a few years ago; but this is still considered relatively low.