BILLINGS, Mont. — A major elk herd that migrates between Yellowstone National Park and Montana suffered another steep decline last year due to a hard winter, predator attacks and hunting, state and federal scientists said Tuesday.
New data from wildlife agencies show the Northern Yellowstone elk herd is down to about 4,174 animals, a 10 percent drop from the prior year's count. That follows a 24 percent drop in 2011.
Yellowstone biologist Doug Smith said the herd remains healthy despite its smaller size. The number is more in line with historic levels since wolves were reintroduced and grizzly bears and mountain lions returned naturally, he said.
The herd peaked at about 20,000 animals in 1992, a few years before wolves were brought back from Canada after being absent from the region for decades. Since then, the herd has declined about 80 percent.
Some outfitters and others who live outside the park say officials have not done enough to curb predator attacks, particularly by wolves. The Yellowstone herd supported a thriving hunting industry, with several thousand elk killed in some years, before the numbers started to drop.
The Park Service has no set population target for the herd, but the latest counts have fallen below the target range of Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks.
The state wants between 3,000 and 5,000 elk in portions of Montana just north of the park. The latest count found 2,734 elk in that area.
Smith said it was inaccurate to heap too much blame for the elk herd's decline on wolves.
Wolf numbers, too, have been dropping in recent years, from 94 in 2007 to 38 last year in the area populated by the Northern Yellowstone herd.
"That's some bad news, a 25 percent decline last year and 10 percent this year. But the elk are looking really good," Smith said. "This was one of the hardest winters we've had in decades ... We've got a leaner, meaner elk herd."
Conservationists credit wolves with helping restore balance to the ecosystem, in part by reducing the size of a herd that some had said was far too large at its peak.
To keep the herd from declining too far, Montana wildlife commissioners in February approved a new permit system for Northern Yellowstone elk. Although there are unlimited numbers of the $9 permits, the requirement is expected to reduce the number of hunters who come to the area, said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim.
Agency biologist Karen Loveless said despite the decline seen in this year's count there are signs the Northern Yellowstone herd could rebound. Loveless says the number of calves per cow elk appears to be on the increase, an indication that more of the animals survived than in past winters.
"I feel some encouragement in the long-term," Loveless said. "We sure would like to see it at least level off and I would like to see it coming back up. There is a possibility that could happen."