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How many elk do Yellowstone wolves eat?

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, figures derived from 20 years of wolf study in the park indicate.

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, has made the investigation possible. Much of the work was done with private funds.

Former Yellowstone employees Mike Phillips, left, John Varley, and Mike Keator talked about the fate of wolves that had to be left in small cages the first night they spent in Yellowstone, Jan. 11, 1995. A court order kept them contained. Doug Smith, standing against the wall behind Wayne Brewster (retired), was with Yellowstone’s wolf restoration project from that beginning. He now has more than 20 years of data on the population in the world’s first national park. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./Jackson Hole News&Guide)

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.

But that rate doesn’t persist. In summer, wolves turn their attention to deer and even rodents, Smith said.

Over the course of 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.”

It takes a pack

Elk hunting for wolves usually involves a pack working together, the biologist told his audience. He showed photographs of a pack in hot pursuit of several elk, pointing out the members in the lead. They invariably are younger wolves and females — members of the species that are lighter and faster than large males who typically are the pack leaders.

But the big wolves are often the key to making a kill, Smith said. When they catch up, they latch onto an elk and seal its fate.

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.

“They don’t kill them in proportion to their availability,” Smith said. He noted the danger a large bison poses to wolves; “Why get your head bashed in?” he asked.

A large wolf can hold up to about 20 pounds of meat in its stomach at a time, Smith said. But after 20 years of chasing wolves and measuring them with a scale, top weight for a big male was 148 pounds — with nothing in its stomach.

Yellowstone says there were at least 98 wolves in 10 packs living primarily in Yellowstone 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.

Smith also made a counterintuitive observation regarding the relationship of grizzly bears and wolves who fight over a carcass, including winter-killed bison. Grizzlies are frequently able to take over a dead animal, even one initially claimed or killed by a pack of wolves.

That won’t necessarily send wolves off to kill a different animal, Smith said. Instead, they lurk on the fringes, waiting for a chance to steal in and grab a meal. “It actually decreases kill rates,” he said.

Montana’s initial wolf hunting seasons affected Yellowstone wolf packs because the state did not institute adequate hunting areas to limit the killing of members of a particular pack. As a result, some packs were significantly disrupted.

In contrast, Wyoming’s wolf seasons, when they were in effect, included zones in which a limited number of wolves could be killed. That spread the impact among different packs, Smith said.

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.

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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 for 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 re-listing under the Endangered Species Act and protection for wolves outside Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park and the National Elk Refuge.

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Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at [email protected] or (307) 690-5586. Follow Angus on Twitter at @AngusThuermer

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29 Responses to How many elk do Yellowstone wolves eat?

  1. Colin Tierney April 4, 2017 at 12:27 am #

    Well written and informative. I truly appreciate the information conveyed in this article. Puts things into perspective regarding some of the impacts to elk populations, which are relatively minor in the overall scheme after accounting for population size, area, sustainable harvest rates, population dynamics, etc. Thank you very much for the entertaining read.

    Albany, Oregon

  2. Tom Windle April 1, 2017 at 7:08 pm #

    Any figures on how many elk are killed by vehicles and trains in one year?

    Jackson, Wyoming

  3. paul Cook March 31, 2017 at 7:25 am #

    Wyoming can manage the wolves better than the media!

    pinedale, Wyoming

  4. John Fandek March 30, 2017 at 5:42 pm #

    Every fall throughout Wyoming and elsewhere, unaccountable hundreds (thousands?) of elk are shot and lost by irresponsible or inexperienced hunters. I’ve seen it all: legs shot off; jaws shot off; and elk crippled by wounds that are not immediately fatal but cause the animals to suffer a lingering death. Somehow this has become acceptable. If a wolf wounds or kills an elk then everybody gets hysterical. Go figger. Oh, I’m a hunter.

    Cora, Wyoming

  5. ken casner March 29, 2017 at 11:54 am #

    I was there in 1988 and the Yellowstone Fires, with the Wyoming National Guard. We had a detachment of 6 UH-1 helicopters flying support mission in all phases. We were then moved to Pinedale and the Fetta Fire. I spent 29 days in support, yet one mission struck home with me. We took a Biologist out to survey the fire and review the damage. During the mission we landed in forest meadow and had lunch. At the time I didn’t know this lunch would turn into an interesting moment in my life. While seated we started talking about the fire and sterile soil from the heat and what it would do to Wildlife. This man just turned and smiled at my question. He said to me, sure there are sterile spots, however, this is the wonder of rejuvenation for these forests. I said isn’t it the starvation of the Elk and Wildlife in the ecosystem? Hell, no it is only the beginning … for these animals,in fact in ten years or less your Elk populations will explode. So much undergrowth will flourish and so will the herds. I didn’t realize at the time I was talking to 2nd leading scientist in Biology in United States.

    Then came his prediction and boy howdy did our elk explode. Sure enough the Elk cause all kinds of problems for Wyoming Agriculture system, Game damage, and the spread of bovine infections. Then the out crying began and what are we going to do?

    Growing up I watched a Gordon Eastman Film on Elk in Wyoming. In his film he had a news clip from CBS News on the culling of Elk on the National Elk Refuge. They shot 2000 head of elk all cows. Upon cleaning these animals they showed the unborn calves, which irked the hell out of the American public. Needless to say that practice stopped after being aired and it still sticks in my mind…

    Well, that elk explosion created a delicate situation for the United States Government… National park exploding on it’s Elk Population and they cannot be shot. What else bring in a natural predator the wolves, so in 1994, bingo the Wolf was established.

    Today you have the rest of the story. Endangered species and again the out crying on your failures to manage your solutions to the perfect ecosystems. The solutions are Kill the Grizzly in his or her dens, cull the wolfs in their dens, shoot the Mountain Lions and stop the spread of Bovine infections.

    There are solutions and so will there be reactions. What is amazing though is how easy it is for us human beings to blame these factors on the animals. When in reality we cannot control the outcomes. The wolves were in extinction in Wyoming by as I re-call 1939. We’d killed them off for sheep and bovine, productions and Money…

    The human species is over-populated, and we’re using war, pollution, starvation, genocide, and greed to cull our species. Yet Ghandi said: “the World can support mankind, the World cannot support Greed”… When our natural animals and insects are gone what will be our solutions then for we’ve done extinction rather well even in Wyoming.. What do we save to save our way of Life, oil coal, gas, huge corporation ranches and farms, is it Greed, Wyoming people need to decide…

    Elk Mountain, Wyoming

    • Nancy Weidel March 29, 2017 at 5:47 pm #

      Thank you, Mr. Casner, for such an appropriate response that mirrors exactly how I feel about this important issue. I believe Ghandi’s truthful words a whole lot more than any study that supports eventual extermination of one of Wyoming’s most valuable resources, all our wildlife. Yes, even more valuable than the much vaunted coal and natural gas, which if the fat cats and political toadies have their way, there will nothing spectacular left to see in Wyoming unless you’re a fan of desecrated wide open spaces populated by only the number of wild animals that can be “harvested” – a disgusting euphemism – annually.

      Laramie, Wyoming

  6. Bruce Parker March 29, 2017 at 9:14 am #

    A study conduct by Dr. Beetle “UWYO” many years ago, indicated elk were so numerous in Yellowstone, they were overgrazing/browsing the Yellowstone Ecosystem (in particular aspen). Hunting was not allowed and there wasn’t sufficient winter range. Elk were becoming a real problem. Predation on elk by large carnivores and the “let burn fire policy” have had a positive effect on the health of the Yellowstone Ecosystem, especially within the park boundaries. I realize wolves can have negative impacts on elk herds outside the park if their numbers aren’t controlled via management. Like big game herds, wolves and bears need to be managed, not eradicated.

    Casper, Wyoming

  7. Jeff Bateham March 28, 2017 at 7:00 pm #

    Teaching their young to hunt they sport kill and often leave 99% of the carcass untouched.. your story is bogus to mislead the public….I lived and hunted Teton park and the surrounding areas befor the grey wolf was introduced and hunted after the massacre of elk ever since

    Missoula, Montana

    • Dewey Vanderhoff March 30, 2017 at 7:50 am #

      Like most unscientific folk easily influenced by recirculated rhetoric, you are mistaken when you say that Wolves are thrill killers and will abandon their carcasses. That simply is not true. A wolf pack may ” kill ahead” but will 99 percent of the time return to feed it down, perhaps over intervals, but devour it nevertheless – IF allowed to. More importantly, that wolf-killed carcass will never go to waste — except when Man intervenes . All carcasses return nutrients (energy) to their ecosystem by way of bears, bacteria, and all manner of scavengers and decompositional agents. We simply have to quit applying Anthropomorphic false beliefs to the natural world and landscape scale ecology over long time spans, as you clearly demonstrate the folly of that narrow thinking. I am tired of hearing (some) folks try to smother science and reality with their rhetoric on the topic of the Predator-Prey relationship.
      Wolves are essential components of ecosystems and were restored for a reason . Human hunters and domestic livestock imported from the Old World are optional . Get over it.

      Cody, Wyoming

  8. Pat Sauvageau March 28, 2017 at 5:35 pm #

    Angus consistently uses the combination “kill and consume” when presenting his elk kill numbers. I contend that many more elk in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are killed by wolves and not consumed. The elk population in the Madison River Drainage in MT has rebounded nicely since the legalization of wolf hunting.

    Anchorage, Alaska

    • Jackson Palmer April 2, 2017 at 7:18 pm #

      Absolute bull .Wolves eat every kill they make. The wolves actually keep the elk and deer populations healthy .Wolves and elk did just fine before ranchers and city slicker sport hunters began disrupting the system nature worked out over thousands of years. And I am a lifelong hunter and as such I know that the wolves and other predators are my allies not my enemies. If you did not fill your elk tag dont blame the wolves ,blame your lack of hunting skills.

      Grants Pass, Oregon

      • Dan Minder April 3, 2017 at 6:22 pm #

        Wolves kill for fun all the time. I cant tell you how many elk myself and other locals have witnessed being taken down by wolves and left to rot…. Wolves kill to train the young in their pack not just for food. Weve seen them take down healthy buffalo in deep snow just to leave it lay… You cant listen to everything that the researchers say …Their views are very conservative over the matter… And true hunters and people who are local to the problem know the true effects on our herds

        GARDINER, Montana

  9. terry l schramm March 28, 2017 at 3:03 pm #

    A bunch of worthless information about how many elk they kill without saying how many elk there are. What is the official elk count in the northern Yellowstone elk herd and what is the calf to cow ratio as well as the bull to cow ratio. The 25,000 elk killed by hunters is also misleading as that is a state wide figure and so far wolves are restricted to north west Wyo. so that number is irrelevant. With less than 1000 elk wintering in the Gros Ventre drainage 50 wolves could have a devastating effect. This is just more half-truths and deception by the pro wolf, anti-hunting agenda. But thanks for telling me that a wolf can consume 20 pounds of meat at a time. WHOOPEE

    wilson, Wyoming

    • Dewey Vanderhoff March 30, 2017 at 8:04 am #

      Terry- you do realize that Wyoming Elk numbers are increasing steadily , including areas where they coexist with Wolves. In 1996 when the first Yellowstone wolves left the Park and began wandering the surrounding area, there were 85,000 elk in all of Wyoming. Today there are closer to 130,000. I live in Cody . The so-called Cody herds have had wolves since 1996 , yet have grown well above Game & Fish objectives, more than human sport hunting can ever manage. How did that happen ?

      And by the way, they are not ” your” Elk…

      Cody, Wyoming

  10. Pat Butts March 28, 2017 at 12:19 pm #

    For the individual rancher like my Alta neighbor, wolves killing 16 sheep “just for the kill” (none were eaten) doesn’t leave us impressed with their presence. Not neighborly!

    Alta, Wyoming

    • Dewey Vanderhoff March 29, 2017 at 7:50 am #

      Yes, they do. Wolves will kill domestic sheep and not consume them. It’s a dirty secret about Grey Wolves that they despise domestic sheep , but that begs the question about having the sheep in the first place . I am very pro-wolf, and I find the wanton loss of sheep to them to be an acceptable cost . Doesn’t mean I have to like it , but sheepers need to adapt to having wolves back among them. Get more sheepherders, for starters. But other than domestic sheep and eliminating domestic dogs territorially , wolves are NOT thrill killers or wanton killers who don’t consume their ungulate kills. They will return to the carcass and feed on it -if allowed to . Quite often they are not. Remember those 19 elk killed at an elk feedground near Bondurant WY last year ? They were accused of being thrill-killed, but truth be told the wolves had no chance to eat them. Humans intervened, gathered up the carcasses with ATV’s , and stacked them all in a nice row for a photo op ( which was taken out of context) , then disposed of them. No matter—once the dead elk had been handled by humans, the wolves would’ve avoided them.

      I think people are missing a big point about to total ecology of a wolf kill. No carcass ever goes to waste. Everything in the ecosystem will consume it, from bacteria to bears. It’s bedrock theory that one of the most disruptive changes modern man has foisted onto the western states’ landscape since settling it is removing carcasses. Carcasses scattered about the land used to be a staple, an important link in the food chain . No more. We altered the dynamic using our false belief that the carcasses were undesirable, when in fact they are not just desirable but even essential to some ecosystems.

      Humans still have a great deal to learn about landscape scale science— biology , zoology. Seems we overemphasize the Political Science in their place.

      Cody, Wyoming

  11. Gary Glenn March 28, 2017 at 12:17 pm #

    Interesting report however it does NOT address the impact of Lake Trout in Yellowstone Lake. The spawning cutties were a prime food source for grizzlies in YNP in the spring however with the lake trout infestation their numbers are astonishingly low in the tributaries and lake. The grizzlies needed to substitute a new food source – elk calves. While the elk calves have close to zero scent at birth the grizzlies can find them. There was a recent study which was not referenced that showed the high mortality rate of elk calves due to grizzly depredation. This may impact herd size as much if not more than the wolves, notably both issues are resulting from mankind screwing with nature.

    Victor ID, Wyoming

  12. Joseph Allen March 28, 2017 at 11:32 am #

    It would seem to me that most hunters who are up in arms about wolves killing “their” elk are looking at this incorrectly and selfishly. Would it not be more of a challenge to hunt elk whose abilities to stay alive are honed by the presence of an apex predator chasing them around, rather than a “predator lethargic” elk? Wolves and elk evolved together, each honing the others survival skills for millennia. Wolves didn’t kill all the elk prior to white Europeans arrival. Why would any hunter want to shoot an evolutionarily sub-standard elk? After all, humans are equipped with the most modern hunting technology-scoped rifles, compound bows, GoreTex clothing, GPS…isn’t that enough of an advantage?

    Buffalo, New York

    • Dennis Baxter March 28, 2017 at 7:22 pm #

      If you are a sportsman, please like this page. Our hunting heritage is in great danger because of the criminal enterprise of wolf introductions. The wolf is nothing more than a biological hoax to drive the eco extremist agenda of non-consumptive wildlife use in aggregate with non-consumptive use with of other natural resources such as timber and forage in order to ultimately establish the criteria for the Wild lands Project, Yukon to Yellowstone, Agenda 21, and all the other Socialist/ Eco Terrorist fantasies out there that are only about CONTROL!!! https://www.facebook.com/SaveWesternWildlife…

      Cody, Wyoming

  13. Joe GILBERT March 28, 2017 at 10:11 am #

    I find it interesting that Wyoming’s hunt area based mortality limits were more effective at reducing impacts to individual packs than Montana’s management, yet Wyoming is the state being constantly brought into litigation. At any rate, recovery has been a success and it will be great to have management back at the state level and the opportunity to hunt wolves in Wyoming.

    SHERIDAN, Wyoming

    • Sue Hamber March 30, 2017 at 11:59 pm #

      Each wolf has its important place in its pack. Like many humans, wolves have an intense sense of family and mate for life. They are highly intelligent and enjoy a sense of play.
      As a part of God’s amazing creation, wolves play a key role in keeping ecosystems healthy. (“How Wolves Change Rivers” https://youtu.be/ysa5OBhXz-Q) The stories of many Native American tribes characterize the wolf as a teacher.

      So, Mr. Gilbert, when you choose to hunt wolves for fun/sport, please remember you will be killing a parent, a mate, a sister, brother, aunt, and its family will mourn their loss.

      Idyllwild, California

  14. Nancy Hoffman March 28, 2017 at 9:59 am #

    The Moose have migrated to Jackson. Understand that wildlife management has science behind it and Wyoming is doing a great job of keeping the populations in balance.

    Jackson, WY

    Jackson, Wyoming

    • Dennis Baxter March 28, 2017 at 7:12 pm #

      What balance are you talking about

      Cody, Wyoming

  15. Egon Schmilkowitz March 28, 2017 at 9:03 am #

    The wolves should come on down to Jackson Hole and snatch up a few thousand of the extra 8,800 elk on the refuge. Then they could head over to Pinedale and eat up a bunch of them deer that have been diagnosed with Chronic Wasting Disease. As for Moose, well we just drive into them and kill ’em with our cars anyway.

    Jackson, Wyoming

  16. Sam Lightner Jr. March 28, 2017 at 8:41 am #

    Nice article… plenty of information to dispel myths taken as gospel (by both sides of “Wolves.”)

    Lander, Wyoming

  17. Nanette Till March 28, 2017 at 8:27 am #

    Well that explains why we now have only 5300 elk in the northern herd instead of the 19 000 we had prior to wolf introduction in 1995. Its criminal to do that to our elk herd. And what about our moose? They have suffered and are nearly eradicated from northwest Wy because of wolves. The grizzlies are practically starving because the wolf has destroyed our wildlife numbers.

    Cody, Wyoming

    • Dewey Vanderhoff March 28, 2017 at 9:54 am #

      Nanette-
      You are totally disinformed or misinformed about the population of Yellowstone’s Northern Range Elk herd. The ideal carrying capacity for that herd on that range is 4500-7500 tops. When that ehrd had over 20,000 animals, it was grossly overpopulated , and the animals were in poor condition.

      Maybe you have not lived in Cody long enough to know that back during the 50’s and 60’s the Park Service brought in professional shooters to kill Elk in huge numbers, which were subsequentally bulldozed into mass graves after all the meat anybody wanted was claimed. But mostly the elk were destroyed hundreds at a time. This was called ” The Gardiner Firing Line”.

      Why was it necessary to kill down the Elk ? —because the wolves had been removed from Yellowstone and surrounds by 1930, by men ( mostly cattlemen) . We humans totally disrupted the Predator-prey relationship in Yellowstone by removing the apex predators, and the elk herds spiraled up out of control… which had ramifications far afield. ALL the elk herds of northwest Wyoming were disrupted to one degree or another by that terrible policy of eradicating Wolves and Grizzlies and even Cougars.

      Now we are correcting that mistake. FYI—when the Yellowstone Northern herd had 22,000 elk, those were not the Good Old Days. People need to think at landscape scale across many decades to get the Big Picture. That is rarely done around Cody.

      Cody, Wyoming

      • Peter Mancuso March 28, 2017 at 11:44 am #

        A clear eyed history.Thnx

        Buffalo , New York

      • Jeff Davis April 1, 2017 at 3:13 pm #

        Dewey Vanderhoff Where did you get the data that there should be 4500-7500 elk in the northern herd? Now Yellowstone’s Northern herd has 5300. I suppose that is correct. Let us assume it is. What was the utilization of the range by the 20,000 elk before 1995? To manage a range one has to know utilization of range goals. Do we want 50%, 60%, 70% utilization of forage? That is the topic that does not get discussed. I keep hearing how the north range was overutilized. By what measurement? I agree elk have to be managed by I believe hunting. My wildlife professor, Harold Picton, said something similiar but again was not specific. I lived around Gardiner for 15 years before the wolves were brought back. I left in 1996. The Gardiner firing line as you call it was out of the Park. Hunters were catching elk going to winter range. Killing is ugly sometimes but it happened up there around Jardine. Most people I know from Montana and Wyoming liked the hunting. How much have we spent on wolves? Professsional shooters would probably be cheaper and they could give the elk meat to the Native Americans or help shelters. Elk backstrap is the best meat in THE WORLD! There are now 5,000 bison in around the Park. There used to be around 1800 in 1995. 3200 extra bison is equivalent to about 9600 elk feeding.The author already wrote wolves do not attack bison very much. They will keep growing and the range utilization is high again. So now equivalents of 5300 elk and (3200 extra bison equals 9600 elk) so this equals approximately 14,900 elk utilizing the north range.Looks like someone needs to hunt bison or elk to get the numbers down if we care about the”range”. Put in your editorial/ response you are against hunting and don’t make it like you care about the “range. The range is always beautiful there in 80’s, 90’s. 2000’s, and now. My dad has been going there since the 1940’s.

        Panguitch, Utah

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