Thirty-six elk fall 150 feet to their death near MeeteetseWritten by Echo Renner
“We set up a spotting scope and could see ravens and birds in the area. We called the game warden, and went up with him,” explains Scott Justice.
Jim Olson, Meeteetse area Game Warden with the Wyoming Game & Fish Department (G&F) says they discovered the elk carcasses at the base of the rock face. One cow elk got stuck on the way down, and remains there. “There were seven yearling males, 12 adult females, 10 calves, and seven unknown that slid down over another cliff,” says Olson. “The cliff is near where the elk normally travel through a chute in the rim rock. The calf ratio was high and I believe young animals were leading the charge, and that’s why they missed. Something spooked them and they went over. It could have been wolves, helicopters, a storm - who knows.” He adds, “I have not seen this before in my career.”
As Justice describes, “The chute is right next to that cliff. It looked like some of the elk were still alive (after the fall) with broken legs, and wallowed around and died.” He continues, “We’ve seen up to 1,000 head of elk waiting there, and take over an hour to come single file down the chute during the evening to feed. Someone told me that was on old hand-dug stock trail where they used to trail domestic sheep off the mesa years ago. It’s broken now and real steep. It would be hard to get a horse down. My guess is those elk were all crowded around there, and wolves or something, spooked them over the cliff. It’s odd there were seven young spikes with the cows and calves, because the spikes usually hang out by themselves.” Justice adds, “When we were there with Jim Olson, a white-grey wolf came down the chute. A week later, we saw a big black wolf and a white-grey wolf playing in the snow, about 300 yards to the right of the jump.”
Chancey and Karla Gitlitz of the 91 Ranch say the area is a checkerboard of property managed by the BLM and property owned by the 91 Ranch, but the elk probably landed on BLM. Though grizzly bears, wolves and other scavengers have since fed on the carcasses, Gitlitz says she doesn’t believe a grizzly frightened the elk over the cliff, as the bears were still hibernating in January. Grizzlies and wolves have attacked 25 head of 91 Ranch cattle in recent years, including a wolf attack on a bred cow last month.
Ed Bangs, Wolf Recovery Coordinator with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) in Helena, Mont. says, “This kind of thing happens, and is more common than you think. It can be impossible to determine what happened if it has been awhile. It sure could have been wolves or other native predators that spooked a herd, but depending on how long ago it happened, my first line of investigation this time of year would be an avalanche. Wild animals die from accidents all the time. The most interesting thing is people would think wolves are somehow more responsible for these types of things than anything else - seeing the world through wolf-colored glasses I suppose. But, absolutely it could have been wolves. Wolves are huge scavengers, so almost any thing that dies for any reason, wolves will try to get a ‘free’ meal. That is partly a factor on why they have such a huge reputation as livestock killers in the old days. Not only did they kill stuff, they fed on carcasses they came across, leaving plenty of wolf sign.” He adds, “However, these types of ‘natural’ accidents are unusual enough that they almost never make any difference in the overall dynamics of wildlife populations.”
Robert Wharff, wildlife biologist and Executive Director of Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife says, “A healthy animal is not going to simply walk off a cliff, whether it’s in the middle of the night or the middle of the day. Elk are smart and incredibly agile. I think it’s highly unlikely and illogical that the elk just walked off the cliff on their own.”
Jim Allen of Lander, a long-time outfitter and President of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association (WYOGA) says, “Elk are incredibly agile and athletic. I’ve seen them go over a cliff I didn’t think a big horn sheep would go over. They had to be more afraid of what was chasing them than the cliff. I don’t think a grizzly was after them. They could maneuver away from a single grizzly, and grizzlies don’t travel in packs. It would be the same with a mountain lion. My opinion is wolves organized this effort, and did it very successfully.”
At least a month’s time had passed before the elk carcasses were discovered on the slope of Carter Mountain, therefore the reason for this plunge of death will probably remain a mystery. Chancey and Karla Gitlitz are simply thankful this unfortunate incident didn’t involve their cattle.