Yellowstone wolves may kill up to 2,156 elk in the park each year and as many as 11,600 in the Greater Yellowstone region, according to figures derived from 20 years of wolf study in the park.

After 20 years of wolves occupying Yellowstone National Park, biologist Doug Smith has suggested the answer to a long-asked question: How many elk do Yellowstone wolves eat?

Smith has been studying wolves in the park since they were transplanted there in 1995. Project leader for wolf restoration, he has been with the program since officials carried the first wolf into a holding pen that year.

His photograph of former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, the late U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Mollie Beattie and former park Superintendent Michael Finley hefting a crate full of wolf across the snow is his most famous shot, he told an audience in Jackson last week.

Since then, he has been flying over Yellowstone regularly, catching and radio-collaring dozens of wolves, mapping pack territories and examining wolf kills to create an unprecedented database. Intensive surveys each winter with a sizable crew, including volunteers, have made the investigation possible.

To answer the question of how many elk an average wolf eats in a year, Smith teased out a figure from seasonal estimates. In early winter, for example, he estimates a wolf will kill and consume 1.4 elk every 30 days.

In late winter that number goes up to 2.2 elk per wolf every 30 days. Over the entire winter season, the average comes out to 1.8 elk per wolf in 30 days.

Over a year, an average wolf will kill — mostly with other pack members — and consume 16 to 22 elk a year, Smith said. “That’s a rough estimate.”

Pack sizes correlate to how big the dinner table is, Smith said, and how many wolves can be seated at it. A deer, for example, is large enough to feed a pack of four to six wolves. A dead elk will provide a setting for nine to 10 wolves — typical for pack sizes in Yellowstone.

A dead moose will serve a pack of 15 wolves or more, Smith said. Bison, likewise, would sustain a larger pack.

But large prey like bison are usually successfully hunted only by packs that have at least two big males. Wolves do not hunt bison in Yellowstone as frequently as one might think.

Yellowstone says there were at least 98 wolves in 10 packs living primarily in the park in January 2016. At that time there were some 528 wolves within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the park said.

Using Smith’s figures, wolves residing primarily in Yellowstone kill between 1,568 and 2,156 elk annually. In the Greater Yellowstone region, wolves take 8,448 to 11,616 elk per year, Smith’s figures indicate.

In Wyoming, humans reported killing 25,852 elk in 2016, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Since wolves were introduced as an experimental population in Yellowstone, they were removed from the umbrella of federal protection and hunting was allowed in neighboring states outside the park. But Wyoming’s wolf plan was challenged in court and hunting stopped in the Equality State.

A federal appeals court recently ruled that Wyoming’s wolf plan provides adequate protection for the species, setting in motion the process of returning control to the state. Hunting could soon follow again.

Smith said the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has a good handle on the hunting scheme. “They did it fine last time,” he said.

But the state must be cautious because it manages a wolf population very close to the minimum required when the federal government first relinquished authority. There must be 10 packs and 10 breeding pairs outside Yellowstone National Park, plus a buffer. Maintaining a buffer gives the state flexibility should a wolf or pack cause unacceptable damage to livestock, for example, and require killing.

Because Wyoming would like to keep numbers down, “They are going to have to watch and be very careful,” not to go below the agreed-to minimum, Smith said. If that happened it could result in a relisting under the Endangered Species Act and protection for wolves outside Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park and the National Elk Refuge.

— Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran editor and reporter with more than 35 years of experience in Wyoming.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran reporter and editor with more than 35 years of experience in Wyoming.

(6) comments

Sam Lobo

"no excuses" bobby..... do you like to spread hate bobby..... Your the one that really hates wolves & the Minnesota example of wolf management proves it. Your the hater. Your hate speech for "sport" hunters and trappers pretty much gives us all a insight to your ignorance. The Minnesota example of wolf management proves exactly that you and your bigotry are a failure.... a failure to man..... a failure to the taxpayer ...... a failure to other wildlife....a failure to livestock and pet owners..... and most of all a FAILURE to wolves. Keep in mind that the situation in Minnesota has nothing to do with “sport” hunters and trappers....

The Minnesota example of wolf management & the likes of Bob Bristers role in that issue cannot be ignored. You know Minnesota right... The shining star state that most in the wolf 'donate now" crowd hold up as the example of how to treat wolves.....Where the wolf faithful tell us the Democratic Governor loves wolves as opposed to Republican Walker "who hates wolves" in Wisconsin. The state where they have more wolves than any other in the lower 48, the state where there is true love for wolves…..Minnesota!
The dirty little secret bobby don't want you to know. Minnesota was killing OVER 200 wolves every year to keep them out of trouble. Yup, they almost hit 300 the year before the first wolf hunt. They were killing OVER 200 PER YEAR for more than half a decade BEFORE THAT 1st Hunt ALL on the taxpayers DIME almost all done by TRAPPING. YES THOMAS TRAPPING! .... Not quite the animal that lives in harmony with people. KEEP in mind that the population of wolves in MN the year before last was only estimated at 2211 wolves and they were killing close to 300 (PER YEAR) for getting into trouble (Habituation and depredation)....once again that 300 is only the documented number.... Many were so disgusted because of re-accruing issues they shot wolves on site without approval of the DNR! The first year after the hunt they only had to kill 150 for getting into trouble. It is estimated that had the state stuck with the 1600 to 1700 wolves in the states science based wolf management plan only 50 wolves would have been needed to be killed for habituation and depredation. Because, the poorly worded Federal Endangered Species Act which allows ignorant and agenda driven judges to interpret “into the majority of their former range” to mean the majority of the state of Minnesota (which is certainly not good or even marginal habitat for wolves) the state of Minnesota.. (and bobby) are once again setting up these wolves for failure! ADDING an additional 500+- wolves (2211 s/b 1700) to the landscape in poorer habitat has resulted in an additional 250 +- (300 s/b 50) dead wolves.! LET ME REPEAT THAT...ADDING an additional 500+- wolves (2211 s/b 1700) to the landscape in poorer habitat has resulted in an additional 250 +- (300 s/b 50) dead wolves.! THESE dead wolves are the result of people like bobby......who loves to wear wolves on his sleeve! We can thank the "donate now" crowd for all this trapping and killing. Thank you sportsman for your effort at keeping wolves at reasonable and responsible numbers....SHAME on those that wear "wolf killing" on their sleeve in and bash sport hunters in order to get "donate now" buttons pressed by the gullible and abuse the Endangered Species Act for easy picking of EAJA dollars setting up the wolf for more controversy and eventual failure.
Support Congressman Gallagher (R), Senator Franken(D) , and Senator Baldwin (D) in their bipartisan effort at reforming the Endangered Species Act which is LONG overdue……. Those that know full well of this inevitability yet prey on the gullible with their “wolf killing” and “save the wolf” talk to create controversy in order to get the gullible to press “donate now” buttons need to be held accountable. The Minnesota example of wolf management where groups like HSUS and people like Bob Brister have more wolf blood on its hands then sportsman! THOSE that have bigotry in their heart and allow RICH welfare environmental lawyers to abuse our EAJA laws and weaken the Endangered Species Act should be held accountable .... responsible environmentalist would do so.

Bob Brister

No excuse for sport hunting of wolves.

Chad guenter

It's not "sport hunting" Mr. Brister. It is game management and it is long overdue with wolves and grizzlies.

Jay Westemeier

And the agencies should be the only ones doing the hunting, so there will be some accountability.

Chad guenter

If it weren't for 100s of thousands of dollars in lost revenue, I wouldn't have a problem with that Mr. Westemeier.

You are promoting government SPENDING large sums of money instead of getting paid by the public to do the same job.

Not financially smart.

Jay Westemeier

I know what you're saying, but relying on Wyoming to police and manage their proposed plan while relying on the public to fund it, could turn into a disaster. It could lead to multiple lawsuits and ultimate relisting of the predators.

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