CODY — A working group created to find ways to bring balance to a regional elk herd and increase hunter opportunities has recommended changes to the hunting season and harvest numbers.
Wyoming wildlife officials will consider those recommendations in making any changes to management of the herd.
The Cody Elk Herd Unit covers eight districts across northwestern Wyoming, extending from Yellowstone National Park into the Thorofare Wilderness and east into the Big Horn Basin along the Greybull River.
The elk population within the region is 7,500, according to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The preferred population is 5,600.
Members of the working group said that while elk trends in some districts are strong, the animals are struggling in others, mainly those in the backcountry abutting Yellowstone Park.
Group member Curt Bales said the group may consider splitting the unit.
“You look at the overall herd unit and we’re way over objective, yet we have areas like districts 60 and 55 — areas surrounding the park in the backcountry — that are being hurt worse by the wolves, seeing more impact from the wolves,” Bales said. “That would be the reason we’d change that into two herd units.”
It’s hard to convince officials that wolves are impacting the overall herd when it’s over its ideal population by 1,900 animals, he said.
Composed of bow hunters, outfitters, sportsmen, landowners and state biologists, among others, the working group first met in June 2011 and has held 17 meetings since.
Aided by data from Wyoming Game and Fish, members went district by district looking at elk population trends, such as the number of calves to cows, bull recruitment and the number of yearling bulls to cows.
In district 66 east of Meeteetse, the group is recommending a more liberal hunting season in an effort to reduce the elk population there and lessen the effects on crop growers and private land owners.
In district 61, which includes much of the Greybull River, the group is recommending an increase in antlerless hunting opportunities.
“We’re focusing hunting on nonmigratory elk in this area,” said group member Justin Sanders. “We want to keep them moving in this area, off and on the forest service and off and on private property.”
In district 59, the Upper South Fork, the group looks to shorten the general season by one week in the wilderness while increasing the antlerless opportunity.
In district 60, which covers the Thorofare, the group would extend the archery season by 10 days and shorten the rifle season by 10 days.
In district 55, the Upper North Fork, which abuts Yellowstone Park and remains an area of concern to some elk hunters, the group is recommending a limited quota.
Spikes would be excluded in all districts.
“We want to maintain a healthy bull population of younger bulls coming up,” Sanders said.
Overall, elk in the Cody herd unit area are doing well, the group said. In 1983, there were roughly 43 calves per 100 cows. In 2011, there were 34 calves per 100 cows.
The bull-to-cow ratio has increased from six bulls per 100 cows in 1983 to 30 bulls per 100 cows in 2011, figures suggest. Yearling bulls also have increased from six yearlings per 100 cows in 1983 to 13 yearlings in 2011.
Harvest numbers across the herd unit also are strong, according to numbers presented by the group on Tuesday.
In 1983, around 600 bulls were taken, the same as in 2011. The number of antlerless elk harvested has increased from 580 in 1983 to roughly 680 in 2011.
“This herd unit is not an easy herd unit to deal with,” said Sanders. “We have areas that are doing well and some areas that aren’t doing as well. We had to evaluate and analyze what’s going on in the entire herd unit.”
The group must submit its recommendations to Game and Fish by May 1. The state will then look at the group’s findings and implement any changes.
“We’ve received quite a bit of public input from various meetings,” Sanders said. “We’ll do a formal letter to the Cody regional wildlife supervisor, who will pass it on the commission.”