Migrating elk need to cross human boundaries and so will conservation efforts to maintain this iconic species.
Written by Kevin Krasnow, Ph.D.
A recent study looked to see how much this region’s elk depend on private land. Gigliotti et al (2022) used locations from 1,088 GPS collared elk from 26 different herds to investigate what proportion of each herd’s summer, winter, and migration was on protected vs. private lands. Their findings show that every herd used land encompassing more than one ownership type and over 90% of herds spent the most time on private lands in the winter. Elk winter ranges not only contained the highest proportion of private land, but they also showed the highest densities of buildings, fences, and livestock. The findings of this study show that while protected lands (like national parks and forests) are critical habitat for migratory elk, these lands alone are not sufficient for long-term sustainability of these herds, especially on winter ranges.
Some elk herds, like the North Madison, Greycliff, and Greeley have winter ranges that are comprised of over 75% private lands. Our local Jackson elk herd has a winter range comprised of almost 50% unprotected lands, as well as migration routes and summer ranges comprised of over 25% unprotected lands.
Fig. 1. Proportion of elk herd seasonal ranges in relation to A) land ownership (BLM = Bureau of Land Management, NPS = National Park Service, USFS = US Forest Service), and B) land protection (public protected areas (PA) vs. easements vs. not protected), Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, 2000–2020.
Development pressure has never been greater in the GYE, and this is a cause for concern for elk populations and many other wildlife species that depend on private land. Out of all the summer, migration, and winter ranges analyzed by this research team, 36.5% of the ranges did not have any zoning regulations, indicating the potential for future development, which could imperil populations through habitat loss and/or fragmentation.
Knowing the importance and location of these critical parcels of private land can help us prioritize unprotected lands for conservation action. There are several tools for conservation on private land including extension programs to help landowners make their property wildlife friendly, fencing initiatives to remove or make fences wildlife-friendly, conservation easements, habitat leases, as well as improvement incentives for landowners. The long-term sustainability of these incredible wildlife populations will require conservation on currently protected areas as well as privately held lands.
As the Elk Refuge and Wyoming Game and Fish Department seek to draw down and eventually end winter supplemental elk feeding due to chronic wasting disease, we can expect two outcomes: 1) a smaller population of elk, and 2) more dispersed elk wintering in Jackson Hole. This increased dispersion will likely put more elk on private lands. What can we do now to get local land-owners on board to help elk overwinter on private property?
Gigliotti, L. C., Xu, W., Zuckerman, G. R., Atwood, M. P., Cole, E. K., Courtemanch, A., Dewey, S., Gude, J.A., Hnilicka, P., Hurley, M., Kauffman, M., Kroetz, K., Lawson, A., Leonard, B., MacNulty, D., Maichak, E., McWhirter, D., Mong, T., Proffitt, K., Scurlock, B., Stahler, D., Middleton, A. D. (2022). Wildlife migrations highlight importance of both private lands and protected areas in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Biological Conservation, 275, 109752.