New Research Reveals Elk Need Food All Year

elk in clearcut this photo is from Washington State.

Thanks to Terry Seyden for this article on elk..

Here’s the link and below is an excerpt:

“We’re expanding the conversation about what elk need,” state Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife manager Mike Thompson said of the new research and policy concepts. “It’s not that you don’t need winter range. But the importance of summer range has been undervalued.”

Research coming out of captive elk herds in Oregon and Washington has painted a new portrait of productive elk habitat, according to University of Montana biologist Mark Hebblewhite. The changes have almost as much to do with the passage of time as they do with fresh observations of elk behavior.
“At the time when a lot of forestry was going on, elk did need places where they could hide,” Hebblewhite said. “Back then, there was lots of forage, but there wasn’t as much mature forest cover for animals.

“Jump forward 20 years, and there’s almost no logging going on in national forests, and we’ve seen a huge reduction in the amount of wood coming out. As the forests have grown older, there’s plenty of places to hide, but not much to eat.”
Elk eat grasses, wildflowers and other forbs that grow best in prairies, meadows, and recently cut or burned forest areas. While they need places in winter where the winds scour snow and ice off the ground (like the summit of Mount Jumbo), they won’t make it to winter without good summer grazing.
“Everybody thinks it’s really great to be an elk in June,” Hebblewhite said. “But that’s when peak lactation (for nursing calves) is highest. If the forage isn’t there, they can be starving in summer. And then the key comes in August and September, when they’ve stopped nursing. Adult females have two months to get back to 10 percent body fat so they can reproduce in fall. That recovery time is when they need to access high-quality forage before they go into winter.”
Studies in Yellowstone National Park have found those summer ranges drying out 20 percent to 30 percent earlier than just a few decades ago as the Rocky Mountain region’s climate has warmed. That’s made it harder for calves to bulk up between weaning and winter.
“If people want more elk, one way to do that is to improve habitat,” Hebblewhite said. “Fire does that, but there’s only certain places we can do that. And July is often best time to burn, when nobody wants more fires and smoke.
“Then there is a role for logging, potentially,” Hebblewhite said. “That’s going to be a tough pill for some environmental groups to swallow.”



Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies would agree. Fresh from defeating Custer National Forest officials over a logging plan that would hurt elk habitat, Garrity said the U.S. Forest Service would continue to lose lawsuits if they refused to follow the latest science.

“When they log, it reduces hiding cover and adds roads,” Garrity said. “Elk stay away from roads, and you need roads to log. When they say opening the canopy lets more grass grow, they never found that was a problem that elk didn’t have enough forage. Besides, logging introduces weeds, and elk don’t eat weeds.”

Logging would open new space for elk forage to sprout. However, FWP’s Mike Thompson said it takes very specific logging to make an elk happy. Cutting north-facing slopes can actually cook off the plants adapted to the shady forest cover. Clearing south-facing hillsides can boost early-spring grasses and flowers, but can speed up late-summer drying.

Logging was the enemy when many national forests set up elk “hiding cover” standards in the 1970s and ’80s. One measurement gauged if the tree canopy obscured at least 40 percent of the sky, as measured from the air. Another checked whether there was enough foliage to hide 90 percent of an elk from an observer 200 yards away. Forest Service workers would actually carry a poster into the woods and record how much they could see.

Mountain pine beetles have literally chewed a hole in those benchmarks. The Blackfoot’s 1986 hiding cover standard combined the number of road miles per square mile with the tree thickness measurements. Today, only two of the eight elk herd units in the Upper Blackfoot River drainage have enough trees to meet the Forest Service’s 1986 hiding cover standard.

“Big game security, under the Forest Plan, will not improve in the foreseeable future, because hiding cover will continue to decline as trees killed by the ongoing bark beetle epidemic begin to fall over the next few years,” the Helena National Forest’s proposed travel plan amendment stated. One of the proposed plan’s alternatives closes 190 miles of road but still doesn’t meet the old standard, according to amendment biologist Deborah Pengeroth.

So the new goal is “security cover.” That’s hard-to-reach country, especially big blocks of unroaded country. Based on research developed in the St. Regis and Philipsburg areas, the idea is to have lots of 250-acre or larger parcels that are at least half a mile away from an open road during the big-game rifle season (Oct. 15-Nov. 30). That includes roads that might be open the rest of the year but can be closed during hunting season.

Pengeroth acknowledged there are several problems with that standard. First, 250 acres of forest around St. Regis might not support the same-size elk herd as 250 acres around Lincoln. Second, closing roads during rifle season might miss the impact of surging numbers of archery hunters who start prowling the hillsides in early September.

Both those issues are open to improvement during the 90-day public comment period that ends in late April. Neither addresses the forage question.

“The reason we have this standard is to get some bulls through the hunting season so they make more elk for the next season,” Pengeroth said. “It’s focused on elk vulnerability during hunting season. The forage component may appear in other parts of forest plan at the vegetation management level where we can consider the new science.”


That’s frustrated amendment critics like Steve Platt of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He said lack of hunter involvement in the new standard drafting was going to give poor results for both hunters and elk.

“The main thing we have to deal with is travel management,” Platt said. “I know the public gets riled up when they can’t drive where they always have or where they can get to now. But four-wheel-drives are more powerful than they used to be, and the problem is elk are getting pinched. So they head for places people don’t bother them, which are generally private lands off the forest. And that creates problems for landowners, because they’re hard to get to from a public standpoint.”

FWP biologist Jay Kolbe hopes the new standards can address another critical factor in elk management. The Blackfoot Travel Plan area supports about 1,200 elk during the fall. But just 10 of every 100 is a huntable bull. FWP standards want to see at a bull-cow ratio of at least 15-to-100.

The factor that might best protect those bulls is the size of the security cover blocks far from roads, Kolbe said. And studies of the Blackfoot area indicate 250 acres might not be big enough to keep elk safe from motorized hunters. Making those blocks bigger also could keep the elk from harboring on private land. Kolbe added that the hunting timeframe needed to start in September with archery season, not October’s rifle season.

Much of the elk country in the Blackfoot drainage around the Lincoln Ranger District got its roads from mining, rather than logging. The Forest Service must evaluate those roads based on their impact to public recreation, grizzly bear and bull trout survival, water quality and other factors, as well as elk. The Blackfoot travel plan will guide how many hundreds of miles of roads stay open or closed.

“The Forest Service needs to make a resource-based call,” Platt said. “If we’re going to have more liberal access, it’s going to mean less liberal elk hunting. They’re going to piss a lot of people off, regardless what they do. This travel management stuff is tough.”

So if lots of trees fall down from Mountain pine and ultimately there’s more forage, that’s good, but elk can’t hide there due to roads being around, so need more backcountry? But they could hide before because the trees hadn’t fallen down? But it’s not all lodgepole, so therefore not all dead, is it? Can some Montanans please explain?

9 thoughts on “New Research Reveals Elk Need Food All Year”

  1. Since 2006 I’ve spent a fair amount of time during the fall hunting season chasing elk around various Wilderness areas and backcountry spots in Montana. My freezer is full every year, so I must be doing something right.

    Based on my experience and observations, it’s very clear to me and the rest of my hunting partners that elk really like to spend time in forests that are recovering from either wildfire or insect infestations. I wrote an article about this on this site back in November of 2010:

    It’s sort of interesting to me that while the article makes a passing reference to elk eating grasses, forbs and wildflowers that grow back with abundance in the years following a wildfire, the article somewhat focuses on logging, which can spread weeds and roads, in addition to also opening up the forest canopy.

    On one hand, some people complain that we have too many wildfires and too much beetle activity in Montana’s forests….yet aren’t these wildfires and beetle activity actually resulting in more grasses, forbs and wildflowers for the elk to feast on?

    Could it be that these wildfires and beetles are creating more high-quality elk habitat across the landscape than could ever be created by logging, if we even accept the premise that logging is good for elk in all cases? I mean, when people constantly bitch about all the forests “destroy” by wildfire aren’t they really bitching about high quality elk habitat?

    Do we only want elk to feast on grasses and forbs that result from logging? Or should we accept that wildfires and beetles also create a positive abundance of grasses and forbs for elk? And that wildfires and beetles might be pretty good at doing this, as those processes have been around a lot longer than industrial logging?

    As a backcountry, public lands, big game hunter I’m also a little leery of any elk study that uses captive, penned-in, non-wild elk herds and then tries to extrapolate those findings to wild elk herds deep in our Wilderness areas.

    As far as Sharon’s last questions about where elk hide, it’s been my experience that elk hide on very steep, north-facing slopes that contain a ton of downfall. This is especially true once human-hunting season starts. Elk bed down in these areas all hours of the day and night and usually travel from these spots to more open feeding areas when hungry. They like this thick cover and all the downfall because they can travel through these areas easier than predators such as wolves and they can also hear predators, or human hunters, coming because of all the noise created from walking through and over downfall. Elk are also very adept at figuring out how to stay one ridge-line, or one nasty, steep slope away from human hunters. Most hunters won’t venture into these areas, and elk figure that out pretty darn quickly. I’m pretty sure that elk don’t need a bunch more human logging to survive. Thanks.

    P.S. I’ll also add that the title of this blog post, “New Research Reveals Elk Need Food All Year” is pretty funny when you consider it.

    • Of course, stand-replacement fires and bark beetle infestations in ponderosa pine are less “natural” and not desirable by humans. Many areas might require a thinning project before we can let wildfires go “free range”. Certainly, elk have PLENTY of protected riparian zones, chock-full of lots of nibblies grazers like. The idea that new roads necessarily go along with restoration projects is just not true. The idea that the Forest Service would log entire watersheds is also ridiculous. The preservationists want people to continue to think that the Forest Service would gravitate back to clearcutting and high-grading if not for them.

      AND, when such “widely-held public beliefs” rear their ugly heads, the eco-groups are happy to not correct the public’s false views. For example, when the public was falsely-convinced that the Forest Service was cutting huge Giant Sequoias, for profit, in a roadside hazard tree project, eco-groups were suspiciously silent. Clearly, only hazardous trees were being cut, with Giant Sequoias being almost worthless for lumber.

      What is wrong with having fire resilient forests, which have a mix of grasses, forbs and trees? Remember, fire-damaged soils cannot support as much vegetation and diversity as it previously had. Derek has provided examples of persistent fire damage from 100 years ago. I’d expect that many stands are already beyond help, and we will have to await the next high-intensity firestorm to exceed historical records.

  2. Yes…I lauged when I saw the title too.

    Over on this side of the hill things are different and I’d have to disagree a little with you Matt. If you look at the maps in the following link you’ll see that elk objectives statewide are generally lower in the Wilderness/backcounrty/roadless areas that have seen plenty of fire and/or insects.

    The following link contains a ton of info that supports the fact that elk respond favorably to logging:

    I’ve seen several of their presentations. Basically they compare body responses of tame elk and wild elk across a number of different habitats. The have some very compelling maps of collared (wild) elk that show their locations throughout the season. And guess what?!?!? They (the elk) concentrated in the checkerboard industrial timberlands that had been clearcut! Sorry I don’t have the citation, but you can surf yourself silly on their site.

    As far as hiding cover…that must be a Montana thing. No lack of cover over here. Brush filled misery. Gotta laugh when I hear some goofball say we need more wolves to eat the elk so we get more riparian vegetation. I guess that holds true in yellowstone but please…no more brush over here.

    • I’ve been waiting for a story like the one above to come along for a long time. As all the old clearcuts grow in, they’re only good for forage for what…25 years,there has to be an impact to Elk. AS far as how effective the MPB forage will be…below is a link to a photo I took in a story I wrote that “simulates” what a lot of Colorado and Montana may look like in another ten years when the deadfall period begins(the photo is a lodgepole clearcut that hasn’t been skidded yet).
      Now I realize this is a pretty pure stand in the photo, and a lot of forests have a good compliment of mixed confifer, but I doubt it’s gonna be to attactive to grazers. Of course, this wasn’t Elk habitat to begin with, so maybe no harm done, but I don’t don’t think the MPB will replace any grown over logging habitat. I doubt the “east side” forests of Montana, the Helena, Beaverhead, ect. would suffer much since a lot of those forests had so little logging done and have both a good alpine and a good low elevation “natural meadow” component now. I’d be more worried about the wetter “west side” that has neither. Only wildfire or logging will suit the Elk there. When I was clearcutting lodgepole, we’d walk across the unit in the morning to where our saw was stashed and our feet would never touch the ground.It was much easier to walk on top of the logs then through them.

      I don’t want to dig through a pile of papers to find it, but Elk numbers in Montana have like tripled in the last 50 years…at least doubled. This came at a time when logging was goin on full bore and all the roads were open. We lose sight of the macro so easily sometimes. One of the next stories I write I’d like to be on “wildlife and logging.” I would die to find a graph of Elk numbers, in any particular Elk unit in MOntana or Idaho that saw a lot of logging, that listed numbers in 1960, before the big logging push, right on through to now. I know what I’d find.

  3. My local elk hunter tells me that his observation is that elk have relatively scarce in areas of dying and dead lodgepole; of course this could be due to the understory vegetation responding or not in very dry, cold areas.

    Perhaps you would have to understand the forage and the juxtaposition of forage and areas for hiding to be able to figure out how a specific bunch of elk would respond. Which makes you wonder how captive elk in Washington and Oregon could tell you about it. Oh, well,

    I did write the title a little tongue in cheek ;).

  4. I’d like to see some research on the habitat effectiveness of endless miles of MPB deadfall…as soon we’ll see in Colorado and parts of Montana. As one FS EIS in Colorado hinted:” The forage will be there, but how far will the Elk want to push through the deadfall to use it?”

    And I have to point out…that the only “cover” left in a lot of these more or less pure MPB killed lodgepole stands, is the old regenerated clearcuts that didn’t die. Role reversal. Kinda sheds a different light on them now. Too bad the public will never know.

    And I have to wonder….if the FS on the PNW coast is doing no regeneration harvests…and I do believe that’s the trend…then what is that doing to Elk populations there? I guess “early seral” isn’t very charismatic.

    And now, I have to get back to my real job.

    • Derek,

      Spend some time on that Starkey site, you’ll find what you’re after.

      15 years is the effective “early successional” habitat that elk find desireable, from what I recall.

      From a fire ecology perspective, the second burn, or burn following the stand replacement event (be it bugs or fire) is the one that is going to create the most diverse mosaic. At least in my experience watching/managing many thousands of acres of natural fire. But that’s in the wilderness/backcountry areas. Much as I like fire (and elk too) I’d never advocate for allowing natural fire to burn where we can first responsibly use the resource and capture some value (call it “restoration” if you must). Oh, and don’t forget job creation and blah, blah, blah, too…

      Unfortunately the FS doesn’t manage for elk and any attempt to do so (despite forest plans) gets criticized as “elk farming” (???). Darned if you do, darned if you don’t. That’s why I still wish we (FS) would take the enviro’s suggestion to heart and just say we wanna LOG, and here’s the environmental effects/consequences. Not keep spinning it in the politcally appetizing reason De jour. Oh well, end of rant.

      • Thanks JZ, I will devour. “capturing some value from it.” You know, the only real difference between a clearcut and a wildfire is with a clearcut you’re providing homes for people, with a fire you’re providing homes for woodpeckers. When you factor out all the similarities, the only real difference boils down to leaving snags for woodpeckers.

  5. Is it possible that there may be other considerations besides elk habitat? May I add that fires (either prescribed or wild) cost money, lots of money, and contribute nothing in the way of commodity production and little in the way of community and family stability or the support of local government and schools. Harvesting timber does all these good things and makes money for the landowner, as well as early successional habitat for the elk.


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