By Jared Lloyd
A lot of noise has been made about the 19 elk killed last month by a pack of wolves in Bondurant. What has been lost throughout much of the coverage are the facts about what actually led to this extremely rare occurrence. Behind the headlines is a manmade story. To be able to understand what went down that night in Wyoming, these facts need to be understood.
To begin with, the elk in question were killed on a feedlot. Just like cattle, in Wyoming elk have feedlots as well. Picture anywhere between a few hundred to a few thousand “wild” elk standing around waiting to be fed. Wyoming has elk feedlots all over the place. Come winter, these feeding grounds shovel out bales of hay for the elk like they are livestock. Elk are heavily concentrated in these feedlots, fed all winter long, and have learned to just stand around waiting for their daily handouts.
So why does Wyoming feed elk in the first place? Is it because predators in the ecosystem are killing so many? No. Wyoming actually considers elk to be overpopulated. This practice was started in part to keep elk from competing with cattle back when predators across the Rocky Mountains were at their lowest numbers. In the absence of predators, elk populations exploded. Come winter, these animals would flood onto ranches in search of food, gorging themselves on stocks of hay.
So what has all this done to the elk? Quite simply, elk no longer act like elk. Given that these animals have grown up in a relatively predator-free environment for nearly 100 years, elk are now being forced to come to terms with the reality of predators again. And in order to survive, lesson number one is not to stand around in groups of a several thousand, in one place, for months on end waiting for handouts from humans.
So what did the wolves do? They committed what is known as surplus killing. Occasionally, when prey is so plentiful, predators will kill multiple animals in one go. Scientists state that when faced with a bonanza such as the feedlot provided, wolves may kill with the intention to return as often as that food is available.