News: Climate Change—Not Just Wolves—May Cause Fewer Yellowstone Elk

Hunters have been blaming the introduction of Wolves for the recent decline in the number of elk in Yellowstone National Park, but new research indicates that climate change may be to blame. New West has provided a nice summary of the evidence.

The news reminded me that several of the accounts of early travel to Yellowstone Park talk about summer snow storms bigger than anything we see now. Of course, the storytellers may have been exaggerating, but perhaps I should see if travel accounts provide evidence of climate change.

Also, early travelers who went to the Park in August (apparently to avoid bad weather) often couldn’t find game. Before the Army outlawed hunting in 1886, many groups counted on living off the land, so when game was scarce they went hungry. Several stories tell about the great joy of returning to the ranches near the park and getting “civilized grub.”

The Earl of Dunraven, who visited the Park in 1874, commented explicitly about how weather affects the migration of elk and other game.


The herds of game move according to the seasons. In Estes Park, for instance, near Denver, you might go out in winter or in early spring, when the snow is deep upon the ranges and shoot blacktail deer till you were sick of slaughter. I daresay you might—if you knew where to go—sit down, and, without moving, get ten, fifteen, or even as many as twenty shots in the day.

At other seasons you might walk the flesh off your bones without seeing a beast of any kind. Yet the deer are somewhere all the time; and, if you can only find out to what deep recesses of the forest, or to what high mountain pastures they have betaken themselves in their search for cool shelter, or in their retreat from mosquitoes and other insect pests, you would be amply rewarded for your trouble.

It is the same with wapiti. Sometimes the park will be full of them; you may find herds feeding right down on the plains among the cattle; and in a fortnight there will be none left. All will have disappeared; in what is more, it is almost impossible to follow them up and find them, for they are much shyer than the deer.

Where do they go? Not across the snowy range, certainly. Where then? Up to the bare fells, just under the perpetual snow, where they crop the short sweet grass that springs amid the debris fallen from the highest peaks; to the deep black recesses of primeval forest; to the valleys, basins, little parks and plains, hidden among the folds of the mountains, where even the wandering miner has never disturbed the solitude.


— Excerpt from The Great Divide by the Earl of Dunraven.

— New West Photo.

— You can read a condensed version of the Earl’s 1874 trip to Yellowstone Park in my book, Adventures in Yellowstone.

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