The snows of the night had covered the blood trail. It was hard enough following tracks that left no imprint in the fluffy snow; wolf and elk tracks all looked alike. The wolf tracks I found the day before led me down to the river, where they ran along the bank, turned around, and headed back where they came from. By brushing away fresh snow in another set of tracks, I was able to find frozen blood drops. These would certainly lead me to a kill, but they appeared to dead-end at the riverbank. I slipped on my waders and slogged across the river, where, after considerable searching, picked up the tracks again. Only occasional hints of blood were present in the tracks, just enough to confirm that I was still on the right trail even after other tracks entered the scene. I trudged on through dog fur stands of trees, tracing the trail as it paralleled the river. Every hundred feet or so, the elk had rested, leaving patches of blood stained snow. I passed a dozen of these rest spots, frozen blood in each one. The elk must have had an uncomfortable night; her bedding spot for the night had multiple bloody beds. The tracks leaving these beds were fresh, made today, but no more blood could be found in the tracks. She had survived the wolf attack, a harrowing feat to be sure.
The lone wolf had apparently come very close to taking down the elk; close enough to cause considerable blood loss. But the elk had been one step ahead of the wolf. Once the elk dashed into the river, the wolf gave up the chase. Proximity to deep water is key to elk survival in our study area. Out of the three drainages contained in the study area, the Madison is the only river too deep for wolves. Thus a primary reason all the wintering elk populations in the Gibbon have been completely decimated and in the Firehole, nearly so. The Madison drainage is still occupied by a large herd thanks to the deeper waters, but it is aging. The older, learned elk know how to use the watery safety zone, but the young calves are still very much vulnerable. Every season that passes sees no recruitment from the calves, because they don’t survive. The population will then slowly age and disappear.
Is this good or bad? Some are calling for more management of the elk populations to prevent this from occurring. Many are calling for the end of wolves altogether (for more reasons than this). But was there ever a naturally occurring winter population of elk before the wolves were eradicated? Do we value natural systems enough to let the elk population die, or do we value their presence in the park more? What do you value? Let me know what you think (Leave a comment, or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org).