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Yellowstone National Park elk migration

Standing Elk
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Elk are migrating out of Yellowstone National Park during the winter at a progressively increasing rate and scientists are trying to figure out why. While it was common for about one-third of the elk to travel north to in search of warmer temperatures and food, now nearly 80% of the elk migrate out of the park – a development that seems to be holding steady over the past few winters.

According to Karen Loveless, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) wildlife biologist, “There’s a really distinctive trend, a pretty steady drift” of elk out of the north side of the park. She adds, “In 2000, 24 percent of the herd came out of the park. In 2013 it was 77 percent and there’s been a steady rise. I am not going to be surprised if it is more this year.”

The factors linked to this elk migration increase could be linked to a variety of reasons, which include better forage, less snow and possibly fewer predators since Yellowstone is a hot spot for large numbers of predators like grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, mountain lions and coyotes – all animals that prey on elk. Researchers are also hypothesizing that Montana’s reduction in bull elk hunting may be another factor as there is less hunting pressure on the elk outside of the northern boundaries of the park, which could also make cow elk “feel safer from hunters” if they migrate north, according to the Casper Star Tribune.

Continued below.

Yet Wyoming is also seeing a change in elk migration patterns, which seem to be linked to a desire to seek out land with fewer predators. The Wyoming Wildlife Initiative has found that some elk are abandoning historic migratory pathways in favor of staying in a “relatively predator-free environment outside the park” and using neighboring farm fields for food much to the chagrin of the farmers and ranchers, according to the Casper Star Tribune.

To better determine the number of elk actually residing within Yellowstone, Utah State University is conducting a two-year study called the 2015-17 “elk sightability study.” The study will determine if biologists are not counting all of the elk because of the condensed areas of the park, which may be limiting the number of elk seen during herd counting by biologists.

“The size of the herd, the large number of bison, the number of bears and wolves on the landscape, all of that is pressure to migrate,” says John Vore, MFWP’s Game Management Bureau Chief. “It’s a premier herd and that’s one more reason we have to pay attention to it.”


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Kerry White_10206756768733617
Kerry W. - posted 3 years ago on 12-18-2015 07:22:41 am

Montana Senator Mike Phillips working with Ted Turner and Hanoi Jane introduced the killing machine to Yellowstone Park, In an effort to reduce the Bison population naturally they had the bright idea to use wolves. Didn't happen and now the Northern Yellowstone Elk herd has gone from nearly 20,000 to a mere 4000. Montana FWP are blaming the drop on hunters. Are they really that stupid? The Northern Yellowstone Elk herd was once the seed herd that provided the majority of elk in Montana beginning in 1912. Herds all across Montana were created from this herd and provide hunting opportunities for both in and out of state hunters. Today our wildlife in Montana is managed politically and not scientifically. Biologists base decisions on speculation, assumption, and modeling driven by politicians influenced by

William M. - posted 3 years ago on 12-15-2015 06:00:28 pm

I live in Idaho. Moved here to fulfill life long dreams. I frequent the Park from open in spring to fall closing. There is one other tidbit happening yearly. There is now a "hunt" for antlerless elk on THE NATIONAL ELK REFUGE in Jackson. Nothing more than slobs killing cow elk in November. Oh, by the way, that would be the same November at the beginning. of a cow elk gestation cycle. Two elk for one. You can go sit in your car and watch this idiocy from the highway beginning the day after Thanksgiving. Certainly there are plenty such hunts all over the west. But at the Elk Refuge? Insane.
When is a governmental agency going to say "ENOUGH!"
BTW, if you think the wolf is having an impact on the elk, look at the status of mountain billies and bighorn sheep. Those animals cannot run to escape. When the snows come the alpine game animals are sitting ducks.
So which is more important, wolves or bighorn sheep?

John R. - posted 3 years ago on 12-15-2015 04:02:48 pm

My wife and I are annual visitors in the late summer/ early fall to the Park and the surrounding areas ...especially WY and MT. We now fly fish for the most part but I've hunted elk in both states, have made 3 horse pack trips into the Thorofare and we've been coming for years. The decrease in the number of elk in the Park is painfully obvious. A single cow elk along the Firehole River now often results in a traffic jam. The decision to reintroduce wolves has arguable support from a purely bio/ecological standpoint but has been very costly in many other ways. It is what it is. Regardless of the outcome and conclusions of various "studies" it is unlikely to be possible to control the future of the elk herd in the Park and in the greater Yellowstone area. "Expert" bio-meddling is frequently based on the scientific WAG* system and does not always turn out so well.
* WAG = Wild Ass Guess

William M. - posted 3 years ago on 12-15-2015 02:25:21 pm

Just say WOLVES. Stop hemhawwing and beating around the bush. I spend a lot of time fishing those waters. There have been fewer and fewer elk each opening weekend. This year I did not see an elk as late as Father's Day. Why go on with this charade. THIS SITUATION IS NOT GOING AWAY. And don't use the bison numbers increase argument. I have personally witnessed three wolves beaten senseless by a big bull bison in Gibbon Meadows.
America's Eden has been raped, plundered and pillaged by WOLVES. Period, end of story.