An aerial survey of the elk population in the South Dakota Black Hills has been completed by the Department of Game, Fish and Parks.

GFP biologists conducted the survey with the assistance of a helicopter company under contract with the Department, and elk population estimates were generated from the survey data using a computer model that takes into account the likelihood of seeing elk from the helicopter.

“We divided each elk management unit into several smaller subunits and began surveying in the northern part of the Hills due to ideal snow conditions,” said Lauren Dahl, GFP biologist. From there we worked our way south until we surveyed the entire Black Hills. This effort utilized 20 staff observers and 173 hours of flight time.”

Biologists saw 4,624 elk in the course of surveying the area within the seven Black Hills elk hunting units and the model estimated the population in this area to be just over 5,000 elk.

“The population model estimates detection probabilities for individual groups of elk seen during the survey based on the circumstances of each observation (i.e., group size, tree canopy cover and percent snow cover) and then corrects for the number of elk not sighted during the survey,” said Kevin Robling, GFP big game biologist.

“We saw over 3,500 elk in Unit 2 alone and the model estimated there were 3,800 elk in this unit,” Robling said. “The model estimated that there were around 700 elk wintering in Unit 3.”

Robling points out that previous research conducted by the Department has documented that elk often migrate and congregate together during winter. “Winter estimates do not represent fall hunting unit estimates. We know elk cross hunting unit boundaries and even the Wyoming state line while traveling between winter and summer ranges.”

A summary report of the elk survey can be found at

Logo courtesy South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks

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