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Wolves Might Not Be Biggest Threat To Elk

Neal Herbert
National Park Service

Critics of wolf reintroduction in the Mountain West say the canine is the biggest threat to elk, but a new study says that’s not necessarily true.

The study looked at Yellowstone elk and found that mountain lions had the largest effect on elk behavior. 

Lead researcher Michel Kohl said male cougars in particular are more efficient hunters than wolves, and elk seem to be appropriately more scared of them. 

Kohl’s study looked deeper into the dynamics between the three species.

“We asked the question if elk are even scared of wolves for four hours of the day,” he said, “are they running from wolves and running right into the mouths of cougars?”

Researchers looked at wolf and cougar hunting patterns.

Wolves hunt out in the open but only at dawn and dusk. Male cougars hunt in the woods and rocky areas but only at night. That means elk have plenty of “safe times in risky places.” The elk are aware of that and have adapted.

“What it does,” said Kohl, “is it allows them to sustain themselves on the landscape without really being exposed to too much predation.”

He said elk numbers did decline after wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone more than two decades ago, but he said, for the most part, these predators and prey have stabilized into what he calls “population harmony” on the landscape.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2020 91.5 KRCC. To see more, visit .

Ali Budner is KRCC's reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, a journalism collaborative that unites six stations across the Mountain West, including stations in Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and Montana to better serve the people of the region. The project focuses its reporting on topic areas including issues of land and water, growth, politics, and Western culture and heritage.
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