What’s Going On With Elk Populations in Your Neighborhood?

Photo of elk along the Dolores River by Jim Mimiaga.

For awhile I’ve been stockpiling elk stories from different areas. I know that many TSW readers have more direct experiences with elk than I do, so I am posting this hoping that you all will share insights from your part of the country.

Here’s one from High Country News about Northeast Oregon:

Historically, the ungulates of northeastern Oregon spent May through November up in the rugged Blue Mountains, which stretch through the Umatilla National Forest in northeastern Oregon into southeastern Washington. Only during the winter months would they travel to private lands at lower elevations. But over the past 30 years, their seasonal pattern has shifted. Now, ranchers like Green are seeing elk as early as August. Some are even reproducing on private lands, raising calves to become permanent residents. Because the state governs elk populations, landowners cannot simply go out and shoot them. Instead, they must abide by hunting laws and wildlife management objectives, which consider factors such as habitat availability and the animals’ value as game.

What was interesting to me about this, is that according to the story, the current 125,000 came from an original 15 animals. At a casual glance, this does not seem to fit in with the concept that a population of at least 50 is necessary to prevent extinction, due to problems from inbreeding and genetic drift. Perhaps modelling populations quantitatively missed some goings-on in the genomes of these animals.

I also wondered why elk would want to go back to the mountains if there was plenty to eat, and otherwise favorable conditions, at lower elevations in the summer.

Here’s one from the AP about  New Mexico.

“Migration through our property is intense and is destroying our resources, water and improvements,” he said. “We estimate from past migration up to 1,000 elk.”

While the Game and Fish Department has no compensation program, spokeswoman Tristanna Bickford said Friday the agency tries to work with ranchers ahead of time in hopes of preventing damage by providing fencing to protect crops and hay stacks.

She also said that since 2018, the agency has increased the number of hunting permits by 67% for an area that includes a large swath of land from Taos Junction west to the Rio Chama and beyond.

The weather is believed to play a role in the movement of herds, according to department biologists. Elk tend to hang out in the high country during the summer and during the fall hunting season. If the mountains see heavy snowpack during the winter, they move into lower elevations where there is more private property.

Meanwhile in Colorado, in southern Colorado (not far from northern New Mexico), elk numbers are down, and people are studying why. Populations were reduced due to elk damage, similar to Oregon and New Mexico, but have yet to rebound. From a recent story  (Jan 2020) in the Durango Herald:

The decline has been attributed to high calf mortality: About half the elk calves born in Southwest Colorado die within six months, and an additional 15% die before they reach a year old.

In the absence of one clear cause such as disease – which was ruled out – wildlife officials don’t know what’s driving the deaths.

Weinmeister said CPW is trying to determine why calves have died at high rates in study areas around Montrose and Trinidad. But research has been slow because expandable radio collars put on the calves keep falling off.

“We’re getting a little better,” he said. “But it’s not happening as fast as we want.”

In the meantime, wildlife officials are looking at other possible causes of the decline.

Recently, CPW limited tags for archery hunters. Whereas tags used to be unlimited, Weinmeister now may lower or raise the number of hunting tags based on conditions on the ground.

Weinmeister said the new process reduces the number of elk killed each year by hunters and decreases the number of hunters who disrupt breeding habits.

Each year, about 13,000 hunters trek into the San Juan Mountains to hunt the Hermosa and San Juan units, which are home to an estimated 26,000 elk.

“From the hunters I talk to, most are willing to make that sacrifice,” Weinmeister said.

CPW also is looking for ways to offset the impact of habitat loss. As Colorado’s population grows and development reaches rural areas, elk lose areas to thrive. And on top of that, recreation is encroaching into the last wild places.

What’s happening with elk populations where you live?

17 thoughts on “What’s Going On With Elk Populations in Your Neighborhood?”

  1. The sidenote re a population size of 50 mammals vs. inbreeding, genetic drift, and extinction is can be misleading. Inbreeding, drift and extinction are different impacts. Inbred populations persist. Genetic drift probably occurs to some degree in all populations, but at much higher rates in smaller populations. As populations become small, their probability of extinction goes up. the number of 50 animals that applies to genetics issues is 50 “genetically effective” animals, which may be as low as 5-10% of the “census population”. A population of red deer, varying between 1000-2000 animals has detectable, small impacts of inbreeding – that are most prevalent under conditions of stress (tougher winters). A bison population of about 3500 animals has been modeled, indicating a loss of 5 % of its very many alleles each 100 years. — That said, some populations, such as some mountain goats, have done rather well, despite being started with rather few founders. But all the population genetics and evolutionary theory indicates that, although they may persist, and even grow, small populations are qualitatively compromised in their abilities to withstand stress, such as a disease challenge, or to adapt, genetically, to a changing environment. The qualitative decline is often slow and not detected. The negative results are expected to occur, not persistently, but periodically, making it easy to ignore what all the genetics we know of tell us must be occurring. It’s too easy to ignore population genetics in wildlife management.

    • James, when I first started working with real-world populations and their genetics (my Ph.d. dissertation is about this), I found of course that populations did not behave the way that simple models showed. Organisms don’t breed at random, and many assumptions (that people needed to make in the models) do not reflect the real world. I recognize that animals are different from plants, but still most populations genetics are mathematical models and evolutionary theory is.. theory.

      It’s also true that geneticists have made many discoveries about organismal and molecular genetics since Soule in the 80’s first did his work.

      • As has been said, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” The example I used is but one, and it gives us one idea of the rate of allele loss. The gist of all the work I have read is that as populations decline, some inbreeding, somewhat more drift, and weakening of natural selection (fewer animals subject to an already inefficient process) will move the “bell curve” frequency distribution of overall animal quality for living unsubsidized in a wild environment toward the left. There will still be “good” animals and “poor” animals, but more of the latter. Wildlife management has emphasized environmental impacts and tended to ignore variations in the qualities of animals in populations. I was once part of that failing.

        • What do you mean by “good” and “poor”? Is it measurable? Because in trees, we think surviving and reproducing is probably “good enough,” and many of the bad things that can happen to trees are not usually the result of inbreeding- getting a bad start in life, or being susceptible to some disease or insect.

          I’ve read about species that show obvious inbreeding depression say Florida panthers

          “They were riddled with diseases and parasites and had poor sperm quality and low fecundity, as well as a host of problems like undescended testicles, kinked tails, and heart defects. ” Which was helped by the introduction of eight females from a different subspecies in Texas. https://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/news/101201_panthers
          It sounds like there were 20 left plus the 8 Texas panthers and this USFWS site https://www.fws.gov/refuge/florida_panther/wah/panther.html
          says there were 230 in 2015. It doesn’t sound like they want/need to introduce more genetic material.

          When a small population is on a downward trend and shows these kinds of signs, I agree that looking at possible inbreeding is smart. But still we have large populations coming back from very small ones like these elk, some assisted by humans like BFFs and pumas, and some not. So I think it is more complicated than simple allelic models would suggest.

          • Agreed. The quality of the animals and the environment are both important. Florida panthers have been temporarily “saved” by an infusion of other genes from another population. But the small-population process only begins all over again. And then there is continuing gradual loss of allelic diversity.

  2. The fact that 125,000 elk came from 15 says very little about what’s necessary to prevent extinction in the long run. A population of 15 is a very small bottleneck genetically, even if breeding was managed. The loss of genetic diversity may not become apparent until progeny are stressed by factors such as disease, habitat loss, warming temperatures and drought.
    As for elk damaging private lands, if overpopulation is the problem, is it a question of too many elk or not enough habitat. The lack of predators such as wolves and mountain lions also has to be considered.

    • Doug, I think there are wolves in NE Oregon, although I can’t map the packs on the ODFW website to the areas in the news story. https://dfw.state.or.us/Wolves/Packs/index.asp
      We could hypothesize that perhaps elk feel more comfortable on ranches than in wolf country, except that the story says that hanging out more on ranches has been changing over the past 30 years. I’m sure that both Oregon and New Mexico have mountain lions. The point of those is that ranches have been there for a hundred years or so, but elk have been changing more recently.

  3. Elk in Southwest Washington State have all but disappeared due to hoof disease. Where we used to see many elk herds sprinkled throughout Cowlitz, Wahkiakum, and Lewis Counties, there are few to be found now, and from those remaining, many are limping.

  4. According to Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, Montana’s elk population in 2019 was 134,557. The total “elk plan objective” population for the state is 92,138. In other words, statewide Montana has 42,419 more elk than MTFWP’s “elk plan objective.”

    Here a link to a ton of Montana-specific elk population information: http://fwp.mt.gov/fishAndWildlife/management/elk/

    And below is a handy map showing which parts of Montana are above, within and below objective.

    • According to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (as of August 2019):

      Idaho has over 120,000 elk.

      Fish and Game is currently meeting or exceeding its elk population goals in 17 of 22 elk zones across the state.

      The statewide elk harvest has exceeded 20,000 annually for the last five years, which has not happened since the all-time high harvests between 1988-96.

      In 2018, hunters killed 22,325 elk in Idaho. There’s no indication that the 2019 harvest will be any different.

      During the 2018-2019 winter, Fish and Game managers monitored 868 radio-collared elk in 21 areas of the state. Adult cow survival was 98% and calf survival was 66%. The leading cause of mortality for both adult cow elk and calves was mountain lions.

      [Yet, the Idaho Fish and Game Department, with the U.S. Forest Service’s (sometimes illegal) approval, has slaughtered wolves on federal public lands across Idaho, including via helicopters, paid snipers, paid trappers, some of which has even taken place within designated Wilderness.]

    • Thanks, Matthew! That’s a great website. It sounds like the Bitterroot area is experiencing the same kind of decline as Southern Colorado, but southern Colorado doesn’t have wolves (yet). Maybe a series of rough winters? But why would rough winters bother some pops so much and not others? Puzzling.

      • There is only one hunting district (250) in the Bitterroot area that is below objective. The rest are either above or within objective.

        • I was mostly interested in the fact that they determined it was enough of an issue to do research on. There are a variety of interesting elk studies here:
          This is from the North Sapphire study.

          “While female elk selection for all variables describing security areas (i.e., restricted public hunting access, closer to cover, and further from motorized roads) was greater under the increased mortality risk of the archery season, selection for areas of higher forage quality was also greater during the archery season. Increased use of areas with higher quality nutritional resources may be due to the combination of good nutrition and increased security on private lands that have variable vegetation cover types. Irrigated agricultural areas may be particularly important and contained approximately 2-4 times the forage quality than mature dry coniferous forests and open grasslands/shrublands in this landscape (see Section 5). Where public hunting access is restricted, either on or adjacent to agricultural areas, these areas may attract elk due to the combination of both security from harvest mortality and access to nutritional resources.”

          • I think that captures the main factors for why they would be spending more time on private land. Greater security from hunting, and they find more food there because we’re growing it for them. One reason that we’re hearing about in Montana for more elk is that private ranches are being bought by “rich out-of-staters” and being closed to public hunting (or charging a fee).

  5. In our area, in the Coast Range of Southern Oregon, the elk population seems pretty stable. Most of the area consists mostly of small valleys surrounded by BLM, industrial forests, some tribal lands, and smaller parcels of private timber lands. Most of it is intensely managed.
    Seems we have mostly herds of 25 to 50, with a few larger one, well scattered across the landscape. Due to the mild climate you run into them, (hopefully not with you car or truck), year around. They are hunter and can be a nuisance to the ranchers. Most ranchers just put up with them.
    Oh, one footnote is that these elk were introduced. ( I’d like to find the guy who introduced the turkeys.)

  6. Here’s a summary from my source in Wisconsin:

    “The general observation is that poor habitat leads to poor conditions of cows, leading to underweight calves that get sick and die, get eaten, or become weak adults that cannot contribute to reproduction. In Wisconsin, when we had a significantly adverse winter (like couple years back), we saw few elk calves and most died if born – most cows came out of those advserse winters in poor condition (having aborted their calves) and it took all summer to recoupe the energetic costs. They also still had not shed their winter coats in June.

    “What saved the cows in the herd was a mild winter the next year that did not cause much expenditure of energy and calving improved, as did calf weights and survival. The 2019-2020 winter has been a bit harder, so we’ll see how the calving success and summer goes this year. Now with wet weather and lots of deer, the elk are being exposed to liver flukes (deer are a host for the parasite) and we will lose some elk to those flukes.”

    • I wondered about the winter problem in southern Colorado (remember we discussed the project of clearing trails in the Wilderness, but the snow didn’t leave soon enough for the project to take place), but I think that the biologists would have seen the poor conditions and figured that that was probably the reason.


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