Yellowstone Elk Calf Study

Elk are the most abundant large mammal found in Yellowstone with an estimated 10,000-20,000 elk in the park. The elk herds in Yellowstone have a deep conservation history, explains Dan Stahler, lead biologist for the project. “They are the heart of the large mammal food web. They are the meat source for all of Yellowstone’s large carnivores and lie at the heart of the mammalian ecosystem.”

Stahler and his team plan to launch a new program to study elk calf survival to better understand and answer elk dynamics on the landscape and how elk respond to multiple carnivores: bears, wolves, cougars, human hunters; what causes them to live or die; how many elk make it to adulthood.

Tom Murphy

Fast Facts

  • Mating season (rut) is in September and October; single calves born in May to late June.

  • Calves are ~30 pounds at birth.

  • Can walk within an hour of birth.

  • Born with white spots, which complements their brown fur and helps them stay camouflaged.

  • Calves are born with little to no scent, which makes it difficult for predators to sniff them out.

Once the program launches, elk calves will be captured in early June using helicopters and by foot on the ground. The calves will be collared with expandable Global Positioning System (GPS) collars which will provide the biologists with information on their movement, habits, and survival. If a calf dies the team can investigate the cause of death. The plan is to capture about 50 elk calves each summer for three consecutive summers and document survival rates of the elk calves.

The last study of this nature was conducted nearly 20 years ago not long after the reintroduction of wolves. This study, which Yellowstone Forever is supporting, will not only help Yellowstone but also provide information to other parks and state managers.

“This study will fill an important gap in data and information that we need now the park has had a full suite of large carnivores for over two decades,” Stahler said, “It is exciting that Yellowstone Forever is helping us accomplish this.”