Elk Management in Yellowstone Park

Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
Federal Agencies
National Park Service


It is important to remember that no single organization works alone to provide for the health of wildlife species, like elk. Coordination is key, and Yellowstone is a perfect example of such coordination between adjoining agencies. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is made up of 6 national forests, 4 wildlife refuges, 2 national parks and many private land ownerships. The entire land mass encompasses 10 million acres. Around 25 federal and state agencies provide administration to this area, requiring coordinated management by multiple groups.


The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation 

Mission Statement:  “The mission of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) is to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife and their habitat.” 

The RMEF has a vested interest in the management of elk in Yellowstone National Park and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  RMEF is an international foundation, with more than 113,000 members representing all 50 United States, and 30 additional countries.   Dedicated volunteers play an active role in conservation programs, hunter heritage projects and organize annual fundraising big game banquets.  Land acquisition, easements, and habitat enhancement projects mark a few of the ways the RMEF has contributed to over 3 million acres of natural lands conservation and restoration across North America.  The RMEF is based in Missoula, MT, where millions of dollars have been generated to support wildlife research and conservation education programs in addition to enhancing and acquiring elk habitat. 

Hunting is an integral component of this foundation.  90% of RMEF members are hunters.  The foundation and its members support ethical hunting practices.  The RMEF stands behind a hunting position statement, which depicts hunting as part of our cultural heritage that should be practiced out of respect for the individual animal, the species and the land.  Hunting is perceived to be a wildlife management tool for sustainable regulation of wildlife numbers within habitat carrying capacity. 

Some recent RMEF conservation efforts have provided direct benefit to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: 

  •  In Missoula Montana, middle school children have been exposed to elk habitat conservation, and since have been involved in active volunteerism for the foundation.
  • In Cookeville Wyoming, a 1,500acre land purchase was made, increasing winter range protection in SW Wyoming.
  •  In Anaconda Montana, the RMEF has merged with YT Timber Co. to bring over 32,500acres into public ownership.  This land provides habitat to game and non-game species, including some critical winter rangelands for elk.   
  • For a more complete list of recent foundation conservation efforts, visit the RMEF News Releases

“Few things are finer than standing in the darkness long before dawn with your rig somewhere far behind you, your rifle in hand and an abundance of wild country before you.  This is the gift we deliver to one another and ourselves by belonging to the Elk Foundation.” 

By Dan Crockett BUGLE editor

Other Federal Agencies:

Federal agencies, other than the National Park Service, are committed to providing sustainable use of natural resources, such as Rocky Mountain Elk.  Use includes public hunting as well as viewing opportunities.  The following agencies work to provide these activities in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, within the jurisdiction of their managed lands.    

 The Bureau of Land Management, National Forest Service and National Refuge System.


The Bureau of Land Management

Mission Statement: “It is the mission of the Bureau of Land Management to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”   

The BLM is the largest public land manager in the U.S. Department of Interior, handling approximately one-eighth of the land in the United States.  Of the 264 million acres of land under BLM management, 176 million acres are located in the Western U.S. where 97% of this land base is classified rangelands.   The BLM administers 8 million acres of land in Montana, and 18 million acres of public range in Wyoming.  Management of elk and game hunting comprise two of many duties the BLM is responsible for.  Multi-use management on BLM lands includes a wide array of resources and uses.  Management of energy and minerals, timber, range forage, wild horses and burrow populations, fish and wildlife habitat, wilderness areas, archaeological, historic sites and other natural heritage values are all provided for by the BLM. 

The United States Forest Service

Mission Statement:  “The mission is to achieve quality land management under the sustainable multiple-use management concept to meet the diverse needs of people.”

The U. S. Forest Service (USFS) is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  The USFS manages 191 million acres of land across the United States, but mainly in the West.  Approximately half, or 85 million acres, of all USFS lands support elk habitat.  USFS managed lands are home to 80% of all elk in the U.S. either year-round or seasonally.  The practice of multi-use management on USFS lands provides for recreation, including hunting and other wildlife associated activities. The Forest Service plays an important role in establishing the future for free-ranging, wild elk on public lands. 

The National Refuge System

Mission Statement:  The mission of the System is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of the fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.”

The National Refuge system is a part of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, which is within the U.S. Department of Interior.  There are over 400 separate units, totaling 90 million acres, in the National Refuge system.  Habitat and species are protected with a multiple use strategy.  For example, the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming was established to provide for elk where critical winter range habitat was lost to development.  Feed is provided for elk wintering in the National Elk Refuge. Hunting is offered in some National Refuges.  This system provides important wildlife habitat on public lands.  


The National Park Service


"...to promote and regulate the use of the...national parks...which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

National Park Service Organic Act, 16 U.S.C.1

The National Park Service (NPS) is within the US Department of Interior. They manage 81 million acres of land in the US, including 2.5 million acres in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In contrast to other federal agencies that practice multiple use management on their lands, the NPS practices "hands-off" management, or minimal human-induced alteration of wildlife and habitat.

The NPS is the agency responsible for management of the over 300 national parks in the United States.  It is for this reason that they play the crucial role in policy making of elk management in Yellowstone.  When the NPS was formed in 1916, the Organic Act stated that hunting was not to be allowed in national parks and that animals and their habitat were to be protected.  It is because of this law that national parks serve as a refuge for wildlife protection and conservation. 

The NPS policies on elk management in Yellowstone are under constant scrutiny by several groups of people.  Local ranchers outside the park see park wildlife as a threat and therefore believe that elk should be controlled and prevented from entering their rangelands.  The park service must work together with ranchers to develop management policies that protect both the elks and the livestock.  In addition, many people believe that there are too many elk in Yellowstone and that they are damaging the vegetation.  They believe that elk numbers should be reduced by artificial control.  However, this conflicts with the park service’s policy of letting nature prevail.


Ranchers in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem:

Ranching is an important private sector livelihood in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  Some ranchers own the land they ranch, and others rent grazing allotments on subsidized federal lands, under USFS or BLM ownership.  Ranchers provide range for cattle, as well as migratory wild ungulate populations, which move out of Yellowstone National Park during winter months.  Cattle eat the same forage required by elk, primarily grass.  Resource competition between elk and cattle may raise questions about the number of elk a private rancher can afford to tolerate. In addition, both elk and bison can be carriers of the disease Brucellosis.  Concern has developed in the ranching community over the possibility of Brucellosis spread from bison and/or elk to cattle.  These and other issues bring attention to elk/ ranching interaction in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  To view a summary of the important aspects of ranching and associated wildlife issues, visit ranching concepts.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA):

USDA Mission: “Enhance the quality of life for the American people by supporting production of agriculture.”

  • Ensure a safe, affordable, nutritious, and accessible food supply.
  • Care for agricultural, forest, and range lands.
  • Support sound development of rural communities.
  • Provide economic opportunities for farm and rural residents.
  • Expand global markets for agricultural and forest products and services.
  • Work to reduce hunger in America and throughout the world.

The USDA is a federal department of the United States, with many facets and responsibilities.  The USDA is an important stakeholder the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in relation to management of elk and bison.  Ranching occurs on private and public lands surrounding Yellowstone National Park.  The regulation of cattle production, as well as, approval of livestock quality for the marketing of beef is conducted by the USDA. Cattle health regulations directed by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) drive the determination of state-level “Brucellosis-free status” determination.  APHIS is in charge of the eradication of Brucellosis from cattle and free-ranging wildlife (such as bison and elk) that may come into contact with cattle. The determination of Brucellosis-free status can yield economic turmoil if status is denied. 

The Animal Rights Activists’ Take on Elk Management

 Animal rights activists are largely concerned with the treatment of wildlife, particularly when it comes to hunting and the exploitation of animals for human consumption. They believe that animals should live a life free from pain and suffering and that we, as humans, have a moral obligation to provide animals with that life. A survey of the most common animal rights websites yielded the following statements of what activists believe:

  • "We believe that all living creatures have the right to live and the right to a life free of suffering." Teresa D’Amico
  • "From an animal rights perspective, there is an obligation to treat non-human animals with respect on an individual basis, just as there is an obligation to treat each and every individual human being with respect." Greg Brown
  • "Every animal deserves the right to live free from human-inflicted pain and suffering." Action for Animal Network (AAN)
  • "Hunting destroys the social structure of their victim’s society." Martin Balluch
  • "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, or use for entertainment. PETA educates policymakers and the public about animal abuse and promotes an understanding of the right of all animals to be treated with respect." People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
  • "Animal rights is an affirmation of all life, an affirmation of humanity’s ability and need to nurture and protect the sanctity of life in all species, human and non-human alike." In Defense of Animals (IDA)

In addition, many activists disagree not only with the morality of hunting, but with the management of hunted species. For example, animal rights activist and author, Ron Baker, believes that hunting and game management contributes to extinctions due to imbalances in funding expenditure from wildlife agencies. He believes that more money goes into manipulating wildlife and the habitat of game species (such as elk) than protecting non-game species. In addition, he believes that hunting of one species may have negative impacts on other species, including threatened and endangered species. To learn more about Ron Baker’s book, visit:

How Hunting Contributes to Species Extinction

Similarly, many animal rights activists believe that wildlife agencies are biased towards consumptive wildlife users, such as hunters and trappers. They claim that the majority of policy makers in wildlife agencies are hunters themselves and that they have little in-depth knowledge of wildlife biology or ecosystem management. They also argue that because wildlife agencies rely on hunting expenditures for revenue, they cater to the hunters’ needs and not to the animals’ protection. To learn more, visit:

Voices for Wildlife: State Policy Planning for Wildlife Protection

Many people argue that feeding elk at feeding grounds is unnatural and conflicts with the National Park Service’s "hands-off" management policy. They contend that it keeps the elk at unnaturally high numbers and that they are destroying vegetation. To learn more, read a newspaper article about this at:

Jackson Hole Tries "Unnatural" Regulation

United States Fish and Wildlife Service: Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

USFWS Background:

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), a bureau of the Department of the Interior, is responsible for providing conservation, protection and enhancement of fish, wildlife, plants and habitat.  The USFWS manages 93 million acres of National Wildlife Refuge System lands on more than 520 National Wildlife Refuges.  Key functions of the Service include enforcement of federal wildlife laws, protection of endangered species, management of migratory birds, wildlife habitat restoration/ conservation and organization of the Federal Aid program that distributes hundreds of millions of excise tax dollars from fishing and hunting equipment to State fish and wildlife agencies.  Since a lot of wildlife habitat can be found on non-federal land, the USFWS is involved in forming partnerships with private landowners to assist in voluntary habitat development on private lands.  Such partnership programs include: Partners of Fish and Wildlife and Partners in Flight.  USFWS is a decentralized Service, with seven geographic regional offices, and approximately 700 field units.  Hunting is considered an important tool for wildlife management by the USFWS. Hunting opportunities are offered on a case-by-case basis within the National Wildlife Refuge System. For example, limited hunting opportunities exist on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming.

Where do State natural resource agencies fit in?

The USFWS does not issue hunting and fishing licenses.  Licenses are issued by State natural resource agencies, which are separate from the USFWS.  Hunting/ fishing licenses and regulation booklet purchases can be made at sporting goods retail stores. State Agencies are also responsible for development of hunting and fishing regulations (season timing/ duration), animal control and management for non-endangered species, management of State parks, forests and recreation areas.  Game warden information is also available through State agencies.  To review State natural resource agency hunting policy in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, visit hunting info.  From this site, direct links to State agency web sites and hunting summaries are provided. 

How do ID, MT and WY State agencies and USFWS regions play a role in Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem elk management?

Hunting is a big game species management tool, which influences the elk population in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  The USFWS and State natural resource agencies support hunting and provide hunting opportunities.  The USFWS considers hunting to aid in control of elk populations, which may otherwise exceed habitat carrying capacity, and possibly threaten the health of other wildlife species.  Yellowstone National Park natural regulation policy applied to elk, does not consider hunting as a valuable tool.  Elk summering in Yellowstone cross boundaries into hunted areas controlled in some instances by USFWS, and regulated by State natural resource agencies.  This means the same elk are being managed differently depending on geographic location.