Do elk need trees?

For many years, it has been pretty much common knowledge, supported by science, that as the amount of hunting season open roads increases, there is more need for cover for elk to hide.  The Helena National forest plan (and others) have incorporated this relationship into standards for elk security.  (Full disclosure – I had something to do with this on the Helena 30 years ago.)   When the Helena National Forest developed its Divide travel plan, it found that it couldn’t meet its requirements for elk habitat because there were too many roads and not enough trees to provide security (trees in the area have been killed in large numbers by mountain pine beetles in recent years).  So it amended its forest plan elk standard to eliminate the role of tree cover in determining elk security (distance from roads replaces road density as a factor).

The rationale provided in the Record of Decision emphasizes the fact that elk have been doing well despite the fact that the existing forest plan standards have not been met in many places.

I have taken into account the fact that Montana Fish,Wildlife and Parks data indicate that elk populations in the Divide landscape are either at or near population objectives of the 2005 Montana Elk Plan and that elk management challenges are only partially related to access management according to that Plan. I have also taken into account the fact that, despite several miles of road closures, only one herd unit comes into compliance with standard 4a in the Travel Plan Decision. Given this, I have concluded that the existing standard 4a is not an accurate indicator of elk security and is insensitive to changing road densities. The methodology utilized for the new standard (based on the percentage of an elk herd unit occupied by elk security areas and/or intermittent refuge areas) indicates that overall elk security in the Divide landscape is adequate. This measure of security is sensitive to changes in open road configuration and will provide a way to determine where proposed management actions are effective or where management needs to improve to ensure adequate big game security. I believe the new standard will provide a more realistic means of guiding travel management and other future management activities in the Divide Travel Planning Area.

In essence, the Forest is using anecdotal evidence in place of long-established science (which the Forest now asserts is not relevant to this kind of forest).  Has the science just not caught up with reality, or is it possible that the high elk numbers are a result of unknown factors that, when they change, will render excessive road densities fatal to meeting elk harvest goals?  When the plan is revised under the 2012 planning rule (revision is ongoing), it will have to meet the requirement for using best available scientific information for its elk habitat management decisions.  (The amendment is using the 1982 planning process, but scientific integrity is still required.)

A court has been asked to weigh in on the amendment.

Interestingly, the lawsuit is by participants in a collaborative process.

7 Comments

  1. This is a classic. First off the are several points not mentioned and broad strokes inferred.
    1) road densities out here in the PNW are higher than in Montana (personal experience, not science) and these densities seem to have little effect on elk numbers. The F&W service should be setting quotas based on survival rates, percentage of expected success, and desired ratios. These roads may effect success rates and definitely impact the effort put forth to retrieve the harvested animals, but if you expect 75% success and you want 100 animals harvested then you issue 134 tags.
    2) The lack of browse is definitely impacted by timber harvest levels, which in turn impact the population levels of a given area. Areas of less browse have lower usage by elk, regions of lower browse have lower populations. We have small elk herds in the high desert where there is limited browse. There are large herds in the coast range where there is more browse. The largest numbers can be found in the large blocks of privately owned, densely roaded, intensely managed timberland. These areas incidently have restricted access the majority of the year.
    3) We have areas on USFS that have restricted access during calving season, which helps with the survival rates, but these areas are open to hunting during the fall.
    Bottom line is you may find data that shows population trends, but be careful on the interpretation of the data. Example – a predator is reintroduced to an area. The following two winters are severe with heavy snow. Elk levels drop by 50%, conclusion reintroduction of predators causes sharp decrease in elk population.

  2. Uh we have 1000’s of elk in the central Appalachians now. They select surface mines and regenerating clearcuts. Unclear to me what an elk would eat in a closed canopy forest especially those sterile conifers stands out West.

    • Howdy ‘forestwatcher.’ Perhaps come out to Montana this fall and I’ll let you tag around as I hiked through the backcountry, including very thick forests, hunting elk. Not sure if these thick forests that I regularly find elk hiding out in during the daytime are the same “sterile conifer stands” you speak of, but we can find out together, ok? True, there’s not too much to for elk to eat in some thick forest stands. But you know what? There’s not much of a long life for elk that stand around during daytime hours just chilling in regenerated clearcuts or open meadows, especially during elk hunting season, or when being chased by predators. So for ‘security” (from hunters, from wolves, from 20 degrees below zero, 2 feet of snow and 40 mph winds, elk need forest cover).

      Also, here’s some more information from a 30 year veteran wildlife biologist with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, which might help you better understand the issue. http://helenair.com/news/opinion/joslin-treeless-security-for-big-game-really/article_72dc9089-9bd3-5491-9a6c-70329a12d4f5.html

  3. That’s why all the future Boone & Crockett elk will be from Harlan County, KY. Superior habitat, no wolves, and surface mine access controlled by coal companies or KY Game & Fish. But I still maintain open habitat whether east or west are superior particularly where forage is limiting or of low quality. You get to a point about productivity that we in wildlife have know for years – there is “wildlife” in the West simply because it is so vast. But on a per acre basis be it elk, deer, black bear, it simply is either too cold, too dry or too infertile. The west (sorta) has scenery. But in terms of wildlife management capacity, biodiversity, high value forest products, woody biomass, eh, it is a moonscape.

    • Yep, and big tomatoes are grown with roundup. What’s your point about big ass elk? And places like Yellowstone National Park is a ‘moonscape?’ And Glacier National Park ‘sorta’ has scenery. Wow. Interesting perspective dude. I don’t discount the ‘productively’ in some parts of the country based largely on the local climate (warmer temps and more rain = more productive) but boy, oh, boy.

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