Elk dilemma continues onOne of the great success stories of wildlife conservation is the recovery of the Rocky Mountain elk or wapiti, which due largely to unregulated hunting was reduced to approximately 37,000 animals by 1907. Those surviving elk were found mostly in and around Yellowstone National Park.
By: Bernie Kuntz, Outdoors, The Jamestown Sun
One of the great success stories of wildlife conservation is the recovery of the Rocky Mountain elk or wapiti, which due largely to unregulated hunting was reduced to approximately 37,000 animals by 1907. Those surviving elk were found mostly in and around Yellowstone National Park.
Today, national population estimates of elk run at about 1.2 million animals! During the last half dozen years in Montana a resident hunter is able to buy TWO elk licenses, which hadn’t been the case since shortly after 1900!
With that in mind, one would think that everything is rosy in the world of elk management. Well, in most places it is, with herds being re-established in all western states and even in places like Kentucky, Tennessee and Pennsylvania — states where elk had been eradicated before the Civil War!
Still there are problems. The first hurdle deals with private lands access, or the lack of it. State wildlife agencies struggle to achieve an adequate harvest in the face of limited private lands access. There are hunting districts in the West that see elk flocking to ranches where there is limited or no hunting allowed, thus preventing an adequate harvest. After the hunting season the elk disperse and cause damage on properties that DID allow hunting.
A more insidious problem in the elk world is the disease issue, notably brucellosis, which causes ungulates to abort their calves. Most authorities on the disease believe brucellosis was transmitted by cattle to bison prior to 1917, and interestingly, the disease today is found only in elk and bison in what is known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. One might ask why this is the case.
The entire U.S. cattle population was declared brucellosis-free in February 2008 after some 74 years of an eradication program on the part of the states and the federal government. However, this success was short-lived because later in 2008 cattle infections were found in both Montana and Wyoming.
So, why is brucellosis found only in elk and bison in the Yellowstone area? Most biologists point to 23 feedgrounds in Wyoming, 22 administered by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and one (The National Elk Refuge) handled by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
Governments have been feeding elk on feedgrounds in Wyoming since 1910. Ominously, a 2009 report authored by nine biologists from various agencies reveals, “brucellosis seroprevalence in free-ranging elk increased from 0-7 percent in 1991-1992 to 8-20 percent in 2006-2007!” Even more troubling is that sero-positive elk were discovered in areas east and southeast of the Park — many miles from the feedground areas that are located south/south-east of Yellowstone.
The solution might be thought to be fairly simple — close the 23 feedgrounds and allow elk to naturally disperse. Trouble is, unlike the State of Montana, which acquired more than a dozen expansive elk winter ranges over the last century, Wyoming has done little to preserve winter range. Instead, the state chose to feed elk. Nowadays most of the winter range is filled with towns, houses and other civilization.
Also, if Wyoming suddenly shut down its feedgrounds, elk numbers would plummet by an estimated two-thirds to three-fourths, largely destroying a thriving outfitting industry and hundreds of businesses associated with elk hunting including many associated with tourism. Another often-ignored reality is that elk license revenue is an important part of the budget of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
The operation of feedgrounds is a time bomb in another arena too — the potential for spreading chronic wasting disease.
So what should be the success story of the recovery of a magnificent animal — the wapiti — is a vexing predicament in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem with few answers and no good solutions.