Last month Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WY G&F) reported that a feedground contractor had discovered a number of dead elk near the McNeel winter elk feedground south of Bondurant, Wyoming. WY G&F investigated and turned up 19 elk carcasses.
They told news media that they thought the elk had all been killed on one night — March 23. The Rim Pack of nine wolves was said to be the likely agent of their death. Of the 19 carcasses, two were cow elk. The rest were calves born about ten months earlier in 2015.
The wolves only fed lightly on the dead elk before they abandoned them according to WY G&F. Therefore, the department pronounced it to be a case of “surplus killing,” a rare event when wolves kill more than they can eat. The dead elk were put in a line and photographed. The pictures were posted to Facebook on Game and Fish’s site. They have since been taken down, but many copies were made for the news stories.
Mike Jimenez, who manages the state’s wolves for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said surplus killing is a rare event and would not affect the general elk population of the area. Jimenez recalled that the last time he heard of such a thing was in the “Gros Ventre area” back some years, but then it was only “three, four or five” elk. Nineteen is a lot.
I have heard of surplus killing myself only twice. It is the current case and the one Jimenez mentioned in the Gros Ventre River drainage upstream from the National Elk Refuge of Jackson Hole. I think it is significant that both incidents took place on WY G&F elk feedgrounds. Wyoming 23 places to feed wintering elk in Western Wyoming. There are three of them in the Gros Ventre River area. Feedgrounds are a controversial practice not used by most other wildlife agencies in the West, including Idaho.
The news media ran with dead elk the story. It soon made it all the way to Europe. Google News showed over 60 articles. The story versions ranged from neutral in National Geographic to very negative about the wolves by the Associated Press. All reported the story as told by WY G&F that the wolves had killed 19 one night and then abandoned this huge pile of nutrition. There were attempts to explain how 19 elk could be slain, but no one questioned that the wolves just abandoned their prey.
Wolves rarely abandon what they kill, but it happens when they are driven off their kill by, let’s say, one or two grizzly bears. The bears will often sit on the carcass and even sleep on and in it, usually deterring the pack. Studies in Yellowstone show the grizzlies win about 90 per cent of the time in a contest with the wolves.
The wolves will abandon a kill if the perceive something wrong — poison perhaps, sickness in the meat, just something “funny.” If people come upon a half-eaten or barely eaten carcass that does not mean it is abandoned. No, it usually means wolf, bear, cougar, coyote, etc. are in the area, often close by. They are probably sleeping off their feast. They return many times until it is consumed. Wolves almost always give up their elk if people come and drag them away and tromp around leaving lots of human scent. This likely happened at McNeel feedlot.
Just as bears remember where they find or kill food, so do wolves. In tough times wolves will return to several months of their old kills looking for scraps. They did not forget about the 19 frozen elk that could have provided them food for a month.
If the carcasses had not been dragged away, these elk would have been consumed by the wolves if it was fit to ear, and also by magpies, ravens, coyotes, fox, and eagles. I assume WY G&F did not leave the photographed elk lying in the snow when they finished taking photos. They are now probably in a landfill or incinerated. Now these wolves have to kill additional elk to feed themselves.
As mentioned, this has happened before, but it was at elk feedlots in the Gros Ventre River about 30 miles to the north. It took place from about 1999 to 2005. At night a wolf pack would kill an elk or two, feed on it, and then go sleep. A few times they killed as many as five extra, which made it surplus according to some definitions.
Each morning feedlot workers would gather up the partially eaten elk and put them in a pile next to the Gros Ventre River road (a snowmobile trail in the winter). The wolves would find their half eaten kill gone, so they would kill one or two more feedground elk.
Next morning, feedground workers would take the new half eaten carcasses away to the pile. Over time, the pile grew. Snowmobilers saw it and got angry about wolves wasting so many elk. It seemed a very long time before authorities figured out what was happening.
The feedgrounds are controversial for a number of reasons, but the greatest is that such a dense winter concentration of elk is a situation good for spreading disease. This winter at McNeel the problem has been hoof rot, an ailment of elk at feedgrounds. Hoof rot caused the deaths of about 160 elk at the Camp Creek and Soda Lake feedgrounds near McNeel one winter ago.
Now we see why 19 elk could be killed at about the same time. Beset by hoof rot, the usually fleet elk could not run. Elk that winter naturally rarely get this disease.
The elk population overall in Wyoming is one with abundant growth. The statewide objective for elk population is 79,525. The actual population has grown almost every year. This year it is 114,600. That’s 35,075 above the objective — 44 percent above. The Harvest Success Rate is 45 percent, the highest or among the highest of any state or province.
Predictions of an elk doom because of the wolves have been around now for 20 years in Wyoming, but wolves are obviously no threat. Elk numbers just keep growing. Nonetheless, the future for elk (or deer) does not look good in the Cowboy State because of the relentless spread of always lethal chronic wasting disease (CWD), an infectious neurological condition caused by prions — misfolded, infectious proteins. Prions eat holes in the brains of elk, deer, and moose.
Wyoming state government has found itself politically incapable of taking action to halt CWD’s advance. Now it has crept to just nine miles from Yellowstone Park. The most important thing that could be done is to close all the state winter feedgrounds, but there is just too much entrenched interest in the old feedground system.
This too is a good explanation why diseases like foot rot persist. The biggest irony might be that the wolves are the only thing in Wyoming holding back CWD. Wolves will chase elk off the diseased feedgrounds, and wolves, cougar too, usually kill the weak. The unaware, staggering CWD-ridden elk or deer are the exact definition of weak.
Dr. Ralph Maughan of Pocatello is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He retired after teaching there for 36 years, specializing in voting, public opinion and natural resource politics. He has written three outdoor guides, including “Hiking Idaho” with Jackie Johnson Maughan. He is a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.