Elk numbers across 6 states

Bugling bull elk

Photo credit: Getty Images

Before European settlement, there were an estimated ten million elk roaming the North American continent. The species had the largest range of any deer species, spreading throughout every part of the continent except for the Great Basin Desert and the Southern coastal plains. But with unregulated hunting, grazing competition from domestic livestock, and habitat destruction by urbanization and westward expansion, American elk populations dwindled to less than 100,000 by the early 1890s.

Fortunately, wildlife management efforts throughout the 20th century helped the elk populations to rebound. By 1984, there were an estimated 715,000 elk in North America. And by 2009, elk numbers grew to 1,031,000. Though today’s elk population is still about one-tenth of the historic level, the numbers have stabilized and, in some areas, have even grown.

Arizona Elk Population

At one time, elk were thinly dispersed throughout Arizona from the White and Blue mountains westward along the Mogollon Rim to near the San Francisco Peaks. These native elk were eliminated before the 20th century. In 1913, 83 elk were translocated from Yellow National Park into Cabin Draw near Chevelon Creek. Two other translocations of elk followed in the 1920s. These transplants were great successes, enabling Arizona’s elk population to grow to approximately 30,000 to 35,000 post-hunt adults.

Colorado Elk Population

Colorado is home to the largest elk population in the world. Currently, the majority of elk herds in the state are either at or near target levels. Though it is important to recognize that over the last two decades, many elk herds in Colorado have changed their habits due to the continuing destruction of habitat through development and the increasing disturbance by humans in their natural habitats. Many elk herds have moved to winter ranges on private lands early in the season. The shift from public to private lands during the hunting season may be adding to below objective harvest, ultimately allowing elk numbers to increase above target levels.
Colorado Elk Population Graph

Montana Elk Population

While elk numbers are considerably down in some areas that have particularly high wolf densities, like the upper Gallatin, Blackfoot Valley and Gardiner regions, elk numbers remain at or above target levels in 81% of the state’s hunting districts. Elk are especially thriving in northeastern and north-central Montana.
Montana Elk Population Graph

Nevada Elk Population

The Nevada Department of Wildlife issued a record number of elk tags this season. The decision was made in response to a rapid increase in the statewide elk population. In the last decade alone, elk numbers have more than doubled. Today’s population is estimated to be 17,500.

New Mexico Elk Population

Based upon the most recent surveys, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish estimate that there are approximately 70,000 elk in the state. Elk typically occupy the mountainous regions of New Mexico. Primary elk habitats include the north-central portion of the state along the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez Mountain ranges, the southwest region, and the southcentral portion of the State along the Sacramento Mountains.

Utah Elk Population

Over the last 30 years, the elk population in Utah has grown substantially. From 1975 to 1990, elk numbers jumped from an estimated 18,000 to 58,000. This rapid increase was primarily due to low population levels and an abundance of available habitat. Since that time, population growth has stabilized through the use of antlerless harvest designed to maintain populations at established target levels as well as reduce populations in regions with poor habitat conditions. The current statewide population is estimated to be around 68,000 animals, making elk the second most abundant big game species in the state, just behind mule deer.
Utah Elk Population Graph

Factors impacting elk population levels
HabitatAdequate winter habitat in the form of lowland woodland cover is crucial for elk survival. Loss of winter range to development, urbanization, logging, grazing, agriculture or other land use continues to threaten elk populations in many areas. Loss of native winter range can also create management challenges by wintering elk in developed areas and agricultural settings. Conserving and managing woodlands and open areas can help support elk populations.
Predation   Elk are predated by wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, cougars, coyotes and people. The reintroduction of gray wolves to some areas is believed by some to have had an impact on elk populations as the wolves target calves. But recent studies have shown that mountain lions may have more of an impact. The combination of human and animal predation may offset or exceed recruitment.
ClimateClimate change can lead to severe changes in habitat and ultimately, changes in population density. Historically, precipitation levels and winter severity have had the greatest effect on herd abundance through large reductions from winter-kill.
DiseaseDisease generally only accounts for about 3% of elk mortality. Brucellosis is a contagious bacterial disease that often causes infected cows to abort their first calves. An average of 30% of elk on feed grounds have tested positive for exposure. Chronic Wasting Disease has also proven lethal. With no vaccination or treatment, the disease spreads easily in high density populations.

Interested in elk, but like mule deer more? Read the first in this series, Mule deer numbers across 6 states.


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