Ensuring the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Get the Facts

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and our members are concerned about and work for all wildlife resources. One of our nation’s greatest wildlife resources, the elk in and around Yellowstone National Park (YNP), is of particular concern. RMEF members, hunters, and state and federal agencies have worked tirelessly to restore and sustain the elk herds around YNP for almost 100 years. In the last two decades, alarming trends have been identified in the YNP elk herds, particularly the Northern Yellowstone elk herd; a trend that should be alarming to all Americans who enjoy this amazing wildlife resource.
In spite of the remarkable conservation efforts of hunters, state agencies, RMEF, and our partners, elk numbers have continued to decline since 1995. Historical fluctuations over the previous 75 years were temporary and lasting only a few years before a rebound to historic levels. YNP elk are currently in a long-term decline, spanning almost two decades.

We can no longer ignore the peril of the Yellowstone elk. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, both within and outside the park, is as complex as it is amazing. This system will not sustain by focusing only on one or two species, but must focus on all species, all wildlife, and the complex habitats needed by these animals.

It is unfortunate that the one species most used as the food source for all YNP predators, elk, has been forgotten and neglected as other higher profile species garner all the attention in the Yellowstone area. No longer can elk afford to pay the price for management strategies that focus on one or two predator species, at the expense of all other prey species such as elk, moose, deer, and bighorn sheep.

As much as some want to discount all of the conservation work hunters have done around YNP, RMEF believes it is necessary to provide the true and indisputable facts related to this issue. Some of these facts are not popular and are not what some groups and organizations want presented.

RMEF has always supported science based on facts and results. The facts and results of the past twenty years are alarming to us and we continue to ask all Americans to seek information for themselves, helping them become advocates for this once abundant and now declining wildlife wonder – the elk of the Northern Herd.

Please read the facts provided below:

Elk Populations in the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd

Year        Elk Population* 

1994       19,045 (year before wolf reintroduction)
1995       16,791 (reintroduction began) 
1996       no count taken 
1997       no count taken 
1998      11,742
1999      14,538 (prior to late season elk hunt)
2000      13, 400 (prior to late season elk hunt)
2001      11,969
2002-03 9,215
2004       8,335
2005       9,545 
2006       6,588
2007       6,738
2008       6,279 
2009       6,070 
2010       4,635 
2011       4,174 
2012       3,915 
(*via U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

RMEF and hunters habitat work in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

Since 1984, the RMEF and partners carried out more than 8,100 projects that enhanced or conserved more than 6.3 million acres of habitat nationwide including 271 specific projects in the Greater Yellowstone Area valued at $88,832,826 positively affecting 765,319 acres.
Gray Wolf history in the Northern Rocky Mountains

Gray wolves were once endemic to the landscapes of the Northern Rockies, as they were in many other locations in North America. As human competition expanded, wolves were extirpated from the greater Yellowstone Region, until being reintroduced in 1995.

The goal of the gray wolf recovery program in the Northern Rocky Mountain region (NRM or Idaho, Montana & Wyoming) was to establish a minimum, sustainable population based on science and biology. Upon reaching certain population criteria within the NRM region (100 wolves and 10 breeding pairs in each of the three states) the recovery plan would return wolf management to the states. 

The science used to determine the proper population levels for a viable wolf population in the Greater Yellowstone and NRM regions was developed by the best wolf scientists at the time, both employed by, and under contract with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). In spite of years of litigation on wolf management, the population numbers identified by this team of highly qualified scientists has never been disputed or changed by the courts.

Those same scientists identified the population minimums states need to maintain in order to keep the populations viable and prevent the USFWS from retaking management control back from the states. The minimum population for states to retain control was deemed to be 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs in each state, a threshold that current minimum wolf populations estimates exceed by 4 to 5 fold; proof positive that state management control and the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation work for all wildlife, predators and prey.

Like the population levels needed to grant the states control, the population minimums that would result in states losing management control have never been disputed or changed by the courts. These levels are accepted by the courts and supported by the science that was used to prepare the federal wolf recovery plan and the associated state management plans.

Hunters have no motivation for wildlife conservation other than the good of the wildlife and their habitat. Hunters have worked hard to prevail in litigation against those groups that have other agendas and motivations that are not in the best interest of wildlife or habitat.

As of today, wolf scientists working for and advising the USFWS have found the Northern Rockies wolf recovery to have far exceeded their expectations and they see the wolf population continuing to remain viable and expand to other areas. The wolf population stemming from this reintroduction has the USFWS preparing to remove federal protections of the gray wolf in all of the Lower 48 states.


1930s: Wolves extirpated from the western United States
1973: Wolves received legal protection via the Endangered Species Act
1980: USFWS signed Northern Rocky Mountain Wolf Recovery Plan
1986: Canadian wolves began recolonizing northwest Montana
1987: Plan revised to include steps for recovery 
  • Recommendation to reintroduce wolves into central Idaho & Yellowstone Park
  • A goal of 10 breeding pairs in each of three recovery zones in Idaho, Montana & Wyoming for three consecutive years
  • When populations reached science-based recovery levels, wolves would be considered viable and wolf management turned over to the individual states
  • Conserve suitable habitat
1994: USFWS proposes to reintroduce wolves as a nonessential experimental population 
1995-6: Reintroduction of 66 wolves from southwestern Canada into Idaho and Yellowstone
2000: Population criteria for delisting (minimum number of wolves and breeding pairs) is met
2002: Population criteria for delisting met for 3 straight years (minimum count of 663 wolves) and USFWS asks Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to submit state management plans
2003: Wolves reclassified from endangered to threatened 
2008: USFWS issued final rule delisting wolves in the NRM
2009: Idaho and Montana granted state management control, only to be contested in court
2011: Congress intervenes and grants state management control to Idaho and Montana
2012: Wyoming granted state management control 

Elk and Wolf population dynamics

As shown in the charts herein, the rapidly growing gray wolf population coincided with reductions of the Northern Yellowstone Elk herd. Today, population estimates are at least four times larger than the original, agreed relisting criteria of 150 wolves in each of the three states, while the size of the Northern Yellowstone elk herd is down by 80 percent! 
(GYA or Greater Yellowstone Area wolf numbers listed below are a minimum population estimate.)


Many other factors impact elk populations, both long-term and short-term, including changing weather conditions, brutal winters coupled with lingering drought, changing habitat, human development, and the ability to find necessary forage and cover. Such issues also have a detrimental effect on moose, deer and other species, not only elk.

Wolves are not the only predator dependent upon shrinking elk numbers within the Northern Yellowstone elk herd and other pockets around the West. Growing populations of grizzly bears and mountain lions also have influence on calf survival. Grizzlies are showing up on the landscape in places not seen for a century, benefiting from much habitat work conducted in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, to the point that the USFWS has acted to delist protections of grizzly bears under the Endangered Species Act and is actively working with Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming to return management control to the states.

RMEF maintains that science and biology are key facets in maintaining a sustainable population of wolves and a balanced landscape with elk and other wildlife. RMEF has invested more than $400,000 in research grants to advocate scientific understanding of wolves, wolf interactions with other species and wolf management.

Biologists agree there is no science to refute the viability of managing wolves as with other species. “There’s no biological reason against having a regulated hunting season,” said Dr. David Mech, senior research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey, adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota and founder of the International Wolf Center. Mech, the preeminent wolf researcher of his generation, also warned of those who use the wolf for singular purposes of "saving the world."

As spelled out in the original agreed upon recovery plan, individual states should manage wolves as they do every other species—elk, deer, bears, antelope, lions, etc. Recent data released by the USFWS indicates a 2012 minimum wolf population of 1,674 in the NRM region. The count represents a 12 percent increase in the number of wolf packs and a nearly 7 percent decrease in the overall population.

Hunting is Conservation

Hunters care about all wildlife. Hunters bankroll conservation by providing the funding that sustains state and fish and game agencies in their efforts in managing wildlife and land conservation.

  • Hunters generated $7.2 billion dollars from an 11 percent tax on all the sales of all guns, ammunition, bows and other hunting accessories since 1939.
  • Hunters contribute $1.6 billion annually to conservation organizations
    • $796 million to state agencies via licenses and permit sales
    • $440 million to conservation sportsmen’s organizations like RMEF
  • Hunters also pour billions of dollars into the economy every year, spending approximately $38.3 billion in 2011

“Hunters have played a key role for decades in helping to manage and sustain dozens of game populations in North America, and they can do the same for wolves,” said Mike Jimenez, US Fish and Wildlife Service Wolf Recovery Coordinator for the Northern Rockies population. “Hunting remains an accepted and successful wildlife management tool that helps to reduce conflicts with humans, maintain stable populations and generate public support. We’re encouraged by the results of the trophy game hunts in each state.”

So what’s the bottom line? Hunters’ conservation efforts have allowed the elk populations in the Yellowstone area to prosper for a century, even in the face of development pressures that have significantly reduced other species. Such work has been accomplished through the following actions:

  • Use of hunting license dollars and excise taxes on hunting equipment to acquire and protect the critical winter ranges necessary to sustain elk and deer when they leave YNP.
  • Volunteerism and charitable donations used to improve summer and winter habitat on the lands surrounding YNP.
  • Use of science-based management to manage all species in the YNP Ecosystem, not just one single species.
  • Reliance on partnerships with state agencies to use all management tools necessary to keep wildlife populations within the healthy carrying capacity of the summer and winter ranges.
  • Input from local communities most affected by the presence of migrating YNP wildlife and the development of science-based management plans reflecting the values of local communities.
  • Application of the time-tested and proven success of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, and funding primarily by hunters and their associated conservation groups.


  1. You appear to be cherry picking the data to make your point about the 80% decline in elk numbers. As someone who is not in favor of or opposed to wolves, a life member of RMEF, and a biologist by training, I believe data should drive the decision making process. Given that, you show only elk population numbers the year before wolves were introduced and since. Was 1994 the all time high for the elk population, or was it declining before wolves were introduced? Is it in fact an 80% decline of the long term average, or is more in the range of natural variability? Without showing all the pertinent data, the organization appears to be playing to the emotions of people rather than using true, fact based science, which is no better than the pro-wolf groups.

  2. You are absolutely correct that in that elk numbers will fluctuate up and down over a period of time. No one is denying that; however at a current population of less than 4,000 elk in the same herd where it was once 19,000 plus in 1994 there is more going on that a natural variability. We are not going to stand by and let the herd number continue to decline to below 2,000 without speaking out. RMEF has put more money and effort into habitat enhancement land protection in this area than any other conservation group; yet there are those who contribute nothing that continue to call for more of the same to continue and it is not working. We have put our money where our collective mouth is and we will continue.

    You will also find in our "Get the Facts" post that we do not blame wolves 100%, as some try to paint on us; however we do strongly subscribe to professional, state-based management of ALL the wildlife which includes predators, who some want to give amnesty from management objectives and strategies. That is not cherry picking.

  3. So if RMEF acknowledges that the loss of big game herds is due primarily to wolves, why then did RMEF foundation just waste $51,000 in a donation to fund Montana FWP to collar more wolves??


    It would be interesting to see the financial statements of RMEF to see where ALL the money goes and when,and why. As a member if asked, I would have said of course not to wasteful collaring. It matters not that David Allen said the donation was not taken from the members funds, but from others. The gifts intent, and the management style reflect RMEF and David Allen's philosophy, not what account they take the money from.


    RMEF should stop wasting dollars on job security "science" for already state funded "biologists" and start supporting wolves being put on the same management status as coyotes. Wolves have been collared for years and data is in.

    RMEF should support the hunting of wolves 24/7/365, or goodbye ungulates. That is what it will take to save the Northern Yellowstone Herd and the rest of Americas Big Game Herds. Nothing less...

    How do I know this? I live in the middle of the range of the Northern Yellowstone Herd. The elk loss is saddening and preventable. RMEF could have done a lot more, a lot sooner. To buy FWP collars now is just about as wasteful as a pack of wolves thrill killing a handful of elk, which happens not too infrequently I understand. . .

    The wasteful $51,000 gift RMEF gave to MTFWP, membership account or not, signaled the end of my membership to RMEF.


    1. The grant was anything but a waste. The funds go toward expanding Montana’s wolf collar program. Translation: the more collars that go on wolves, the better idea FWP will have about the actual size of the wolf population and where wolves are located, and the better FWP can reduce the wolf population to reach management objectives. Right now, FWP has a minimum wolf estimate (which they say is well above objective) but has no accurate idea of the exact numbers or where some specific wolf packs are located. So we can continue semi-accurate game counts/estimates and finger-pointing or we can take action and figure out how many wolves are really out there and exactly where they are so hunters do their part to carry out state management efforts.

      RMEF has been in the fight for years. Right now, RMEF is involved in litigation to allow states to manage wolves as they do other wildlife. RMEF has also continually called on states to implement aggressive predator management plans, especially in areas where predation is severe.

      As for RMEF financial statements…they’re listed on our website: www.rmef.org.

  4. I feel that any hunting or trapping group should not claim to be "conservationist". Your only angle or reason you say you're helping Elk are so that their numbers are high for you to have more chances to kill the animals later. Correct? Your so called "conservation" isn't helping the bigger picture, the larger environment. But, you have more heads on your wall I bet. See Nat Geo study : ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/wolf-wars/wolf-illustration
    C. Copeland

    1. Dogs before people... Fox is in the chicken house and you wonder where the chickens are going. Hunting not only creates over I'm sure a million plus jobs and mega tons of food for the poor. So sad that this is happening in our country. The true conservationist are LOSING

  5. C. Copeland,

    RMEF has protected and/or enhanced more than 6.3 million acres of habitat across the country. It is our goal to conserve as much vital elk county as possible for the benefit of elk and other wildlife.

    Hunters fund conservation! There’s no denying that. Excise taxes on fishing, hunting and shooting equipment, and motorboat fuel plus fees for licenses and stamps are dedicated toward state fish and wildlife management. Hunting ($7.2 billion since 1939) and fishing ($7.3 billion since 1952) combined to generate $14.5 billion toward the Wildlife & Sports Restoration programs since their establishment. Add the sportsmen’s support to conservation organizations through memberships and contributions and that totals $3 billion for conservation per year.

    Hunters make up 96% of our RMEF membership. We recognize that and we absolutely will not apologize for that. Hunters are in the fields, in the mountains, in the backcountry and on the landscape. Some of the strongest conservationists out there –a.k.a. those who love and care for the land and wildlife—are hunters.

    1. Thank you for all of your help. The wolves are out of control, I see many many MANY people saying "Protect our Wolves" "Stop the killing", many come to yellowstone 1 time or less a year to visit. From a local stand point they are decimating our herds. Soon there wont be anything left, Then what?

  6. Before you put all the blame on wolves, please consider how many deer and elk have been killed by http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronic_wasting_disease Chronic wasting disease - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia en.wikipedia.org Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a transmissible spongiform encephalopathy (TSE) of mule deer, whitetailed deer, elk (or "wapiti"), and moose ("elk" in Europe). TSEs are caused by unusual infectious agents known as prions. To date, CWD has been found mainly in cervids (members of the deer family). and More than 100 elk found dead on a ranch about 20 miles north of Las Vegas (New Mexico) this week....Their top suspicion: something called Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, or EHD. The often-fatal disease is caused by insect bites. Also in recent news from Aug. 28, 2013 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epizootic_Hemorrhagic_Disease Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia en.wikipedia.org
    Epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) is a hemorrhagic disease of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) caused by an infection of a virus from the genus Orbivirus (Howarth et al. 2001).[1] It is an infectious, and sometimes fatal, virus that is characterized by extensive hemorrhages , and is found in the United States.

  7. Your points are well-taken Wild Mountain Time. Disease does indeed take a toll on wildlife in various locations, the Yellowstone area included. However, so do bears, cougars and certainly the reintroduction of wolves.

  8. There are so many mitigating factors that contribute to the decline of wildlife populations, it is hard not to see wolves as the nail in the coffin for the Yellowstone herd.

    The courts don't have to reconsider the base-line science used to get the initial numbers for a 'sustainable wolf populations', the result is right out there, or not, on the mountain.

    The Yellowstone herd is not the only herd in trouble.

  9. I have two questions: 1) The northern yellowstone elk herd has indeed declined, but I thought that one of the reasons for wolf reintroduction was that it had gotten too high, that despite hunting the elk herd was causing much damage in the area. People I know who have lived there before and after say that the land looks much healthier. since that reduction. So perhaps the "ideal" number of elk should be lower and the high numbers were an unsustainable anomaly?

    2) Elsewhere in the Rockies, the elk are flourishing. Idaho Fish and Game has 21 of 28 zones in which elk numbers meet or exceed objectives. http://fishandgame.idaho.gov/public/docs/rules/bgElk.pdf. Northern Idaho officials state that poachers kill more elk than wolves http://bit.ly/1hUcW4I. I just wonder if wolves are getting too much of the "credit" for a decline in elk.

  10. Elk and wolves have been coexisting long before man got involved and wolves had nothing to do with the near extinction of elk in 1870 . Thanks to groups like RMNEF for returning elk to landscape but their needs to be balance and 20,000 head of elk on the northern range is not healthy for the range .Our national parks should not be elk ranches they need to be complete ecosystems including the keystone predators . Just take a look at how unhealthy Rocky mountain national park is . http://bit.ly/1khQBiw

  11. We don't disagree that the original size of the herd was probably too large but our point is the Greater Yellowstone elk population continues to fall and does so WELL BELOW pre-wolf reintroduction predictions. When you talk "balance," the elk population is below 4,000 for the first time ever and, if the trend continues, it will probably get worse. Wolves, bears and mountains lions continue to have a great effect on elk. That's why it's so important we support state management efforts in the surrounding states.

  12. @Chris
    What is the ideal number? Greater Yellowstone elk populations are below 4,000 for the first time ever! How low does this number go before we you concerned about it? As far as the RMEF is concerned, the number is too low. On top of that, some continue to promote the cause of the wolf at the expense of all other wildlife. What we're saying is "Looks what's happening in the GYE!"

    Your second point is irrelevant. You can't paint a broad brush over an entire landscape. The real question is what are the elk numbers WHERE WOLVES ALSO LIVE? In central Idaho alone, elk numbers are down 43% since wolf reintroduction. True, wolves are not the only factor --nor did we state that--because habitat issues, bears and mountain lions also come into play but there is no denying that they play an active and critical role in elk populations. As for poaching, it's a sad and very illegal situation but let's do a little math. Idaho stated it had a MINIMUM wolf population in 2013 of 659 wolves (many believe a more accurate estimate is between 850-1,000). Taking that 659 number an applying results of a GYE study in the early 2000's that a wolf eats 1.8 elk per month or 21.6 a year, you come up with a total of 14,234.4 total elk eaten in a given year. And that does not take predation by mountain lions and bears into account.

    Again, that highlights the importance of sound state-based management of wolves and other predators.

  13. Many of the comments show a complete misunderstanding of this problem. First, it isn't a "reintroduction" of a wolf that used to live here. It is planting an invasive species of Canadian wolves that are much larger than what was here before. Second, if you run the calculation of the total wolf population in WY, ID, and MT times 20 Elk killed per year per wolf, you'll find these invasive wolves have already killed well over 200,000 Elk. That is why it is such a huge problem.

  14. I am wondering where and how you got all your data for the elk and wolf numbers?