Yellowstone elk numbers are up, according to the 2015 winter count done by the Northern Yellowstone Cooperative Wildlife Working Group.
The survey, carried out last Jan. 20, was conducted by staff from the National Park Service and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. With the help of three airplanes, the staff were able to count 4,844 elk, 77 percent of which were north of the Yellowstone National Park while the remaining 23 percent were inside the park.
Unlike last year's count, survey conditions were considered favorable throughout the region. The 2014 count turned up poor and inaccurate results. Compared to the 2013 count's 3,915 elks spotted, the figures for 2015 were 24 percent higher. This number is also the highest since 2010, when staff counted 6,037 elk.
The Working Group will keep monitoring trends in the population of Yellowstone elk, evaluating contributing factors, such as predation, hunting and environmental conditions, to assess the numbers. Formed in 1974, the Working Group is tasked with preserving and protecting wildlife species in Yellowstone by boosting scientific knowledge about all animals within the national park as well as their habitats.
Aside from the National Park Service and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the Working Group is also made up of biologists and resource managers from the U.S. Geological Survey-Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center and the Forest Service.
Yellowstone typically sees between 10,000 and 20,000 elk during the summer from about six to seven herds. During the winter, however, these herds drop in number as the elk head for lower altitudes outside the park.
With the Yellowstone elk's sheer number, they also represent about 90 percent of wolf kills during winter and are considered to be an important food source for mountain lions and bears, as well as at least 12 species of scavengers, such as coyotes and bald eagles. They are also included as targets for hunting activities outside the park.
Depending on the number of elks around Yellowstone, the number of bison, bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorn and moose may also be affected. Elks also have an effect on vegetation as their browsing and deposition of nitrogen affect soil fertility.
Male elks can grow up to around 5 feet high at their shoulders, weighing up to 700 pounds. Females, on the other hand, are slightly shorter and can weigh less at 500 pounds. At birth, a calf will weight around 30 pounds.