This late winter may be turning out like the winter a decade ago when there was a huge die-off of elk and bison in Yellowstone Park.
While the snow pack on the Northern Range is only average, cycles of days 1 to 10 degrees above freezing during the day, freezing a night, and period of deep cold have gradually created snow conditions where it is like concrete. Elk and bison cannot paw through the snow. Other than exposed slopes they have little to eat and their condition declines daily.
Dr. Doug Smith told the last 5 elk kills they examined showed the elk had almost no bone marrow left—starvation. A growing number of elk and bison carcasses are appearing.
The interior wolf packs are now living almost entirely on bison. Smith said there are currently 4 bison carcasses in the Pelican Valley. They are winterkill being used by Mollies Pack and at least one emerged grizzly bear.
The Gibbon Pack and the Hayden Valley Pack have also killed bison in recent days.
In 1996-7 the Montana DOL gunfire outside the Park and winterkill inside reduced the bison herd from 4000 to about 1200. This winter began with about 4900 bison and is now below 3000 and falling. An elk count has not been taken this year during a series of bad flying days and difficulty getting the 4 agencies that do the count coordinated. The rules specify how the count will be done with all the flying in one day. Smith said emerging brown slopes where the elk have dispersed looking for food will make the count, if conducted, less accurate than desirable. It is difficult to see tan elk on brown hillsides.
Mike Stark is written a similar and more recent story on the wolves and the hard winter of elk and bison. "Winter tough on bison, elk in Yellowstone Park" By Mike Stark. Billings Gazette.