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A large band of elk beat a hasty retreat after being spooked by hikers. Steven Brutger photo

CHEYENNE – Elk populations in Wyoming’s major herds are nearly 30% over objective Wyoming Game and Fish Department personnel revealed as their governing commission approved hunting seasons and nearly 2,000 additional licenses Wednesday.

Some 101,800 elk populate the state’s 28 closely monitored herds, according to the estimates presented in the agency’s proposed annual hunting-season-setting regulations. That’s 28.6% above the objective for those groups.

In addition to the 28 herds for which the agency makes individual population estimates – through trend-count or population-model methods – seven additional herds are managed for landowner/hunter satisfaction and have no numerical objective. Some 8,400 elk made up those seven groups combined last year, Game and Fish estimates.

That makes Wyoming home to an estimated 110,200 elk, about one for every six people in the state – not counting the thousands of calves that will be born this spring. Population estimates are calculated after the fall elk-hunting season.

The commission unanimously approved the 2021 hunting seasons at its meeting in Jackson, reflecting some adjustments from last year. Game and Fish anticipates 64,410 hunters will kill 27,096 elk in 2021.

Game and Fish considers a herd that is within 20% of its agency-defined numerical objective to be “at objective.” But the statewide 28.6% figure surpasses that range. Thirty-four percent of herd units are above the 20% plus-or-minus range, 17% are below that “objective” range.

Across Wyoming the 10-year elk population trend, “it’s been pretty static,” Doug Brimeyer, deputy chief of wildlife, told the commission, but with increases in the last two years. “All our managers are just trying to maintain opportunity to control elk populations in much of the state,” he said.

That’s even true in the Laramie region, despite the Mullen Fire, which burned across some 176,878 acres in the Medicine Bow National Forest last fall. Biologists believe elk pushed out by the blaze returned after the flames died.

“Overall, we’re about 1,900 licenses more than last year,” Brimeyer said of the state. “We’re doing what we can to control those populations.”

The expected harvest this year should be about 2.5% higher than last year and Game and Fish expects 6,779 more hunters than in 2020. Wildlife managers expect 42% of hunters to be successful, down from 2020’s 46%. They calculate it will take 17.6 hunter-days to kill an elk, a shorter time than the 18 days in 2020. The figure includes days spent by unsuccessful hunters.

All told, elk hunters will spend 476,790 days afield pursuing elk, Game and Fish calculates.

The season-setting vote came about a month before the deadline for resident hunters to submit applications for the licenses that can only be obtained through a lottery. Midnight, June 1 is the deadline for those applications.

Resident licenses cost $62 but some tags for only cows or calves sell for $48. Game and Fish charges non-residents $707 for lottery-issued full-price elk tags, which include a fishing license, and $303 for cow/calf licenses.

The out-of-state deadline for the elk license lottery was Feb. 1.

The far west is the exception to the statewide plethora. In the Jackson region, the goal is to maintain existing numbers, Brimeyer said.

This year’s count revealed 10,784 elk in the iconic Jackson Elk Herd. Fully 8,384 were on feed on the National Elk Refuge this winter, Refuge Biologist Eric Cole said in an interview.

Refuge elk have regularly exceeded the federal reserve’s separate goal of hosting no more than 5,000 elk each winter.

Wildlife managers were scheduled to discuss in 2021 whether the 11,000-elk objective for the herd is appropriate. Refuge Manager Frank Durbian last year sought that review in part to address the discovery of Chronic Wasting Disease in the herd.

The herd is Wyoming’s first feedground population known to have a CWD-infected member, raising worries that concentrating them on feed lines could exacerbate disease spread.

Discussions about the herd size will happen after the Game and Fish completes its ongoing CWD “feedgrounds public collaborative process,” but not in 2021, agency documents state.

In her review of the Jackson Elk Herd, biologist Alyson Courtemanch wrote that Game and Fish had CWD sample results from 1,035 hunter-killed elk from 2018 through 2020. No new cases have been discovered since the Dec. 2, 2020, positive sample from an elk killed in the Grand Teton National Park elk reduction program, she told WyoFile.

The elk reduction program in the park should continue this year, park Chief of Science and Resources, Gus Smith, told the commission. Elk there are part of the Jackson herd. The 400 Grand Teton elk reduction licenses and hunt areas target short-distance “suburban” migrants and seek to avoid long-range migrants that summer in Yellowstone and on national forest lands.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

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