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Will the elk survive?

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Foes of the wolf’s return to the Northern Rockies have been given more ammunition—a new census shows Yellowstone National Park’s northern elk herd is shrinking at a surprising rate.

Wildlife biologists in airplanes have counted 8,335 elk in and around the park in their annual census. That’s a decline of 880 elk from a year ago and more than 11,000 from a decade ago.

The herd’s size, in fact, has fallen by an average of 6 percent each year since the mid-’90s when—not coincidentally—wolves were reintroduced into the park.

Park officials are careful not to place all the blame on canis lupus. To be sure, Yellowstone’s 200 gray wolves prey on elk (as do several thousand bears and mountain lions), but there are more causes for the herd’s decline—five years of drought, the harsh winters of 1996 and 1997, and the shooting of thousands of elk during annual late hunts outside the park around Gardiner.

Official caution notwithstanding, the anti-wolf crowd is loudly renewing demands for wholesale slaughter.

“We need to clear wolves completely out of the migratory drainages and elk calving grounds north of Yellowstone for four or five years to bring this elk herd back,” said Robert Fanning, a rancher and founder of the anti-wolf Friends of the Northern Yellowstone Elk Herd.

In the meantime, the state of Montana is restricting elk hunting permits to protect the herd. That has angered businesses in parkside communities where the late hunt has become a vital part of the winter economy.

The wolf’s friends, meanwhile, find themselves in the familiar and unenviable position of trying to calm fears about the endangered predators.

“There’s a lot of hysteria,” said Suzanne Stone, the Northern Rockies representative of Defenders of Wildlife, a leading environmental group behind the recovery of wolves here. “We need to keep in mind that there are many factors causing the elk’s population decline. To blame it all on wolves is just crazy.”

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