Wolves and grizzly bears are mostly to blame for a steep population decline in a signature elk herd in the northern range of Yellowstone National Park, government scientists said on Wednesday.
The elk population in the northern section of the park is prized by sportsmen who hunt outside Yellowstone boundaries in Montana and by the millions who pour into the park each year to see wildlife.
Annual counts of the northern Yellowstone elk population show it has plummeted by more than 70 percent since 1995, falling from 16,791 to fewer than 5,000 today.
The herd, which seasonally migrates north from the park and into the Gardiner, Montana area, saw its numbers cut by nearly a quarter over the past year or from 6,070 in December 2009 to 4,635 last month, according to the latest survey by state and federal officials.
Biologists said wolves and grizzlies are the major reasons for the decline, with wolves reintroduced in the area in the mid-1990s.
But hunting and a drought that began to plague the region in the early 2000s, reducing forage for elk and lowering reproduction also have played significant roles in the decline, according to the Northern Yellowstone Cooperative Wildlife Working Group.
The group, composed of state and federal wildlife and land managers, said the reduction in northern Yellowstone elk comes amid a significant decline in wolves and slight drop in grizzlies in the same area in recent years. (At left: grizzly takes over wolf kill of elk, chasing wolves away)
The number of wolves in the park's northern range fell from 94 in 2007 to 37 last year, with the population dented by a public hunt in 2009 and diseases like distemper.
Scientists said fewer predators and the cancellation of a late season elk hunt in the region will likely boost the herd's numbers.
Reuters, "Wolves, bears blamed for decline of elk in Yellowstone", accessed January 20, 2011