Junction Butte Pack

Wolves from the Junction Butte pack are seen in March in Yellowstone National Park. 

POWELL — The number of wolves in Yellowstone National Park has risen in the past year, according to Doug Smith, the park’s senior wildlife biologist.

Park officials believe there were 80 wolves in Yellowstone last year, as compared to 94 — living in eight separate packs — this year, Smith said during a live presentation on Facebook last week.

In 2003, the park had as many as 174 wolves, spread across 16 different packs.

The March 3 presentation came in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of wolves being reintroduced to Yellowstone. Smith spoke about the impact of wolves in the region, hoping to dispel many of the “myths” about the species, including its toll on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem elk population.

“We do have fewer elk, but they’re not gone,” he said. “They’re probably the healthiest elk herd in North America because they’re culled by predators.”

Between 20,000 to 25,000 elk were in Yellowstone prior to the reintroduction; Smith said about 8,000 remain.

Now, “it’s more ecologically appropriate,” he said.

Wolves’ choice of food is one of three main reasons the reintroduction program has been controversial: Smith said they compete with humans for game animals; they occasionally kill livestock; and some consider wolves a human safety threat.

“The last one is the least effective argument because wolves are probably the least dangerous of all the carnivores in North America,” he said.

Wolf hunting is legal in the three states bordering the park and wolves involved in livestock depredation are removed from the ecosystem, Smith said.

Yellowstone wolves typically only live five to six years, he added.

The park is broadcasting a live presentation about wolves each Tuesday through March on the Yellowstone National Park Facebook page.

Smith, who has been studying wolves since 1979, came to the park in 1994 as a biologist for the wolf reintroduction project.

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(5) comments

Marion Dickinson

I guess the reason those few remaining elk have so few babies is because they are so healthy huh? All of those tax free to researchers tax dollars evidently make everything look good.

Janine Bowen

I believe the researchers cite a number of reasons for the decline - in the 1980’s sport fishermen released an invasive species of trout that overran the native species and who spawned in water too deep for the grizzlies to reach. This had once been a major source of their food supply but they were then forced to turn to elk calves. Over 60% of tagged calves in one study were killed by grizzlies compared to 15% by wolves. Additionally the nutrient content of the grass has been rendered inadequate by climate change and the elk have been forced to eat enormous quantities to sustain them but the poor nutrient density has affected the females ability to conceive. Seems that humans, as is often the case, are the major problem here.

Ken Chison

Janine. Please state your sources for your accusation that sport fisherman released lake trout into Yellowstone Lake. This is groundbreaking news that everyone, including the Park Service, would love to know about. Also, please share the depleted grass nutrient, causing low calf production. Ive followed the elk numbers for years, and have never heard of these facts.

Jay Westemeier

It's usually those who have been living tax free off our dime for years that continually complain about this research. As the article stated, the current number of elk in Yellowstone is more ecologically appropriate. Yellowstone used to be the New York City of National Parks with its elk overpopulation before the reintroduction of wolves. Yes, wolves have killed some Yellowstone elk. But the overall elk population decrease is also due to the fact that the overpopulated heard has been displaced by design. Yellowstone's wildlife is much healthier now.

Rancher Rick

What decrease in elk numbers? Wyoming elk harvest numbers have gone from 26,365 in 2012 to 24,535 in 2017. Similarly, Montana elk harvest numbers have gone from 20,550 to 30,348 in 2017. The wolves may have local impacts but likely less than humans. Not to mention that we infected the elk with brucellosis when we brought cattle over from Europe...

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