Elk Reintroductions

Rocky Mountain elk are native to north-central New Mexico, including the Jemez Mountains, whereas a different subspecies, Merriam's elk, inhabited southern New Mexico, east-central Arizona, and the Mexican border region (Hall 1981). Merriam's elk went extinct around 1900 in New Mexico, and native Rocky Mountain elk were extirpated by 1909 (Findley et al. 1975). Although elk were known to early inhabitants of the Jemez Mountains (Fig. 1), elk remains are seldom found in archaeological sites there. Indeed, two of three known elk remains from the Jemez Mountains (Table) came from archaeological sites dating to the late 1880's, while the third is represented by a single bone tool dated at A.D. 1390 to 1520. This scarcity of elk in archaeological remains suggests that only small, local elk populations were present between A.D. 1150 and A.D. 1600. Elk numbers may have been suppressed by the many ancestral Pueblo people who inhabited the area, as suggested for nearby Arroyo Hondo by Lang and Harris (1984) and for the intermountain West by Kay (1994). The gray wolf, the most important natural predator of elk in the Jemez Mountains, was extirpated from the area by the 1940's (Findley et al. 1975). Hunting has reduced local populations of another elk predator, the mountain lion (Allen 1989).

Fig. 1. A drawing of elk from a rock art site in the Jemez Mountains, New Mexico. The elk was probably painted in the late 1800's.
Courtesy C. D. Allen, USGS

Although Merriam's elk was driven to extinction, the Rocky Mountain subspecies survived farther north at places such as Yellowstone National Park; these northern animals were introduced widely in New Mexico (Findley et al. 1975). In 1948, for example, the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish released 21 cows and calves and 7 bulls captured at Yellowstone into the Jemez Mountains (S. Keefe, 25 September 1948, report on file at Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico). In 1964-1965, another 58 elk from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, were released into the mountains of Los Alamos County adjacent to Bandelier National Monument (White 1981).

Table. Ungulate remains (minimum number of individual animals) recovered from archaeological sites in and near the Jemez Mountains.

Locality Deer Elk Bighorn Antelope Bison Ungulate
Jemez Mts. (45 sites) 154 3 30 24 7 58
Arroyo Hondo (Santa Fe) 157 6 - 56 7 213
Total 311 9 30 80 14 271


Elk populations have exhibited exponential population growth since at least the 1970's in Bandelier National Monument and the surrounding Jemez Mountains. The size of the Bandelier National Monument area elk herd has increased dramatically since the 1977 La Mesa fire (Allen 1996a; Fig. 2), which created about 6,000 hectares of grassy winter range. Estimated size of the wintering elk population in Bandelier National Monument has increased from less than 100 in 1977-1978 to 296 in 1978-1979 (Conley et al. 1979); 200-400 elk occurred in the La Mesa fire area in 1979-1980 (Rowland et al. 1983). By 1989, though, 1,000-2,000 elk wintered on Bandelier National Monument and adjacent Los Alamos National Laboratories and U.S. Forest Service lands (R. Isler, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Santa Fe, personal communication). Aerial surveys over Bandelier National Monument counted 907 elk in 1991, 867 in 1992, and 939 in 1994 (Allen 1996b). If we accept that 100 elk wintered in Bandelier National Monument in 1978 and 1,500 elk in 1992, the annual population growth rate was 21.3% with a 3.6-year population doubling time. Some of this population increase reflects concentration of animals into favorable wintering habitat from surrounding areas of the Jemez Mountains, where New Mexico Department of Game and Fish officials estimate that overall elk populations are between 3,500 and 8,000 animals.

Fig. 2. Distribution of elk at Bandelier National Monument and vicinity, Jemez Mountains, New Mexico.

Similar rapid population growth has also occurred in New Mexico as a whole, as well as throughout the West (Peek 1995). Elk were reintroduced into New Mexico beginning in 1911, with estimated statewide population levels of 3,500 animals by 1934 and 10,000-12,000 elk by 1976; the 1992 population was estimated at 40,000 elk (D. Weybright, New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, Santa Fe, personal communication). If we assume 10,000 elk in 1976, this translates into a 9% annual population growth rate and an 8-year doubling time for 1976-1992 (for 1976 = 12,000 elk; the result is a 7.8% annual increment and a 9.2-year doubling time). Because these large ungulates compete with domestic livestock for herbaceous forage, conflicts with ranchers have emerged in some areas.


Existing data are inadequate to determine whether rapid population growth continues today in the Jemez Mountains, although observations over the past several years clearly reveal that local elk populations are now colonizing lower-elevation sites in ever-increasing numbers, which is indicative of range expansions, if not continued overall population growth. These large elk populations are affecting resources ranging from plant communities to soils and even archaeological sites throughout the Jemez Mountains, especially in the Bandelier National Monument area. Given the uncertainties associated with current data, further population increases should be discouraged until the effects of large elk numbers on the area's resources can be quantified, desirable population levels that are based on resource-carrying capacities identified, and appropriate management strategies determined and implemented.

Craig D. Allen
U.S. Geological Survey
Biological Resources Division
Midcontinent Ecological Science Center
Jemez Mountains Field Station
Bandelier National Monument
Los Alamos, New Mexico 87544