Wyoming: Wolves Kill 19 Elk, Officials Suspect ‘Surplus Killing’

In Wyoming, a pack of wolves killed 19 elk in what officials suspect was a “surplus killing.” Wyoming Game and Fish Department Regional Wildlife Supervisor John Lund confirmed the carcasses were discovered near a Bondurant feeding ground and included two adult females and 17 calves.

Although they are often portrayed as fierce predators, wolves rarely kill for sport. Like other carnivores, wolves rarely kill more than they can eat. However, there have been isolated incidents where a pack of wolves killed more prey animals than they could consume. These incidents are called surplus killings.

A majority of surplus killings involve domesticated sheep. Scientists are unsure what sparks a surplus killing, as it appears to be unnatural. As reported by Living with Wolves, it has been suggested that the sheep’s behavior can contribute to the frenzy.

“Instead of fleeing, as wild prey would do, sheep tend to run in circles. This chaos can trigger a prey response in predators that can result in multiple kills. In the Northern Rockies this behavior has been recorded with mountain lions, bears, coyotes, wolves, and domestic dogs.”

On the evening of June 29, 2004, a pack of nine Idaho wolves, known as the Cook pack, killed a total of 70 domesticated sheep. The incident was clearly a surplus kill, as far more animals were killed than the wolves could eat.

Less than one month later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “killed the entire pack.”

High County News reports laws protecting wolves have increased their numbers exponentially and may be to blame for increased incidents of livestock kills, including surplus killing. In 1995, more than 207 wolves were killed by wildlife officials, as they were suspected of preying on livestock.

Although surplus killing is generally associated with sheep, the Wyoming wolves killed 19 elk. It is unclear what sparked the mass kill of prey. However, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has suggested the number of wolves in Wyoming increased significantly due to federal protections.

In February, the House approved a bill that would “remove gray wolves in the Great Lakes region and Wyoming off the federal endangered list.”

Casper Star Tribune reports “wolves in the western Great Lakes and Northern Rockies” were “shot, poisoned and trapped into near-extermination in the lower 48 states in the last century.” However, in recent years, the populations have thrived and now reportedly exceed 5,000.

As of December 2011, there were an estimated 328 wolves throughout the state of Wyoming, with 48 known packs and 27 breeding pairs.

Although wolf hunting is permitted within certain areas of the state, it is regulated and a license is required. The bill, which was approved by the House in February, would broaden those hunting grounds.

Opponents of the bill are concerned lifting the protections will undo everything the laws have done to increase wolf populations throughout the United States.

Lund said he is unsure why the Wyoming wolves killed 19 elk. Although the Rim pack generally kills one to two elk per night on or near the Bondurant feeding ground, the Regional Wildlife Supervisor said the mass kill was very unusual.

“This is a rare event. A lot of people call it surplus killing… It has been observed on other occasions, just not very often. This was one of those events.”

County 10 reports the agent cannot conclusively prove the 19 elk were killed by the Rim pack, but they are one of the largest and most prolific packs in the area — with nine known members. At this time, Lund does not know what, if anything, will be done to the wolves in the pack, as the Wyoming Game and Fish Department is a state agency and wolves fall under federal jurisdiction.

It is unfortunate that the Wyoming wolves killed 19 elk in what appears to be a surplus killing. However, it is a rare occurrence, and officials are not concerned about the impact on the local elk population.

[Image via Mlorenz/Shutterstock]