Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Habitat Security: Protecting Elk and Elk Hunting

Secure habitat results in healthier elk herds and better hunting.
For those of us who chase elk around the wilds, the last word we might use to describe these wily animals is “vulnerable.”  But when elk lose too much habitat security, or are too easily accessible for too many hunters, or technology evolves beyond the ability of elk to easily escape and evade bullets and arrows, elk can indeed become overly vulnerable.  When hunted elk – which often means bull elk -- become overly vulnerable, it can have negative impacts to the health of the herds and result in reduced hunting opportunities. 

Concerns about bull elk vulnerability originally sprang not so much from high mortality in the bull segment of herds, but from low calf numbers. In the late 1960s, wildlife biologists noticed that widespread declines in pregnancy rates and spring calf counts coincided with reduced mature bull-to-cow ratios in many herds.  Although yearling bulls are capable of breeding cows, serious questions arose about their reproductive efficiency and the social and ecological consequences.

In 1969, concern over a proposed timber sale in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, along the Middle Fork of the Judith River in Montana’s Little Belt Mountains, proved a catalyst for change in elk management. Forest Service officials viewed the sale as critical to the forest’s planned program of timber harvest. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists feared disastrous effects on elk. In an effort to resolve conflict, the two agencies met in March, 1970, and agreed to the Montana Cooperative Logging Study. This 15-year research project involved five government organizations and a timber company. About the same time, similar research began in the Blue Mountains of Washington and Oregon. The two research projects produced a wealth of crucial information concerning the effects of logging and roading on elk, elk habitat and elk hunting – spawning concepts such as habitat security and elk vulnerability.

Here are some of the findings from that extensive research:

In the absence of older bulls, a lack of social order may lead to more fighting among young bulls and increased harassment of cows throughout a more extended rut. Spending even more energy on the rut saps vigor in both bulls and cows, increases susceptibility to predators and tough winters and makes for less healthy calves. Since young bulls tend to breed later than old bulls, their calves are born later in the spring. Such late comers can miss out on prime growth-boosting spring forage and do not have enough time to gain adequate body weight before their first winter. In addition, calves are born over a longer period of time, instead of mostly all at once (what biologists refer to as “the flooding strategy”). All of this makes calves more susceptible to predation, disease and winter kill.

Because a large rack suggests a bull’s ability to adapt and survive, and put excess energy into antler growth, cows – when given a choice – pick larger, more mature bulls to breed, ensuring the best genes are passed on. A lack of mature bulls inhibits this adaptive genetic selection process. Wildlife biologists have noted that in herds that lack mature bulls, overall pregnancy rates are often reduced, conception rates are delayed and the rut can be extended by a month or more.

In other words: There are reasons elk herds evolved with a certain number of mature bulls in their herds and related social structures and breeding behaviors. Healthy herds need healthy big bulls. So in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s wildlife managers and land managers worked together to improve habitat security, reduce elk vulnerability, maintain and enhance hunting opportunities, and ensure natural bull-to-cow ratios and numbers of mature bulls in our wild elk herds.

As Olaus J. Murie, considered the “father of elk management,” wrote in his monumental book, “Elk of North America,” published in 1951:

“Looking to the future, in view of the needs of elk and exacting requirements of recreation based on multiple use, the safest course is to model elk management along natural lines, so far is reasonably possible, to preserve its distinct habits as well as its habitat.”

Controlling elk vulnerability is key, and maintaining and enhancing habitat security is inversely related. As security declines, vulnerability increases. For example, easy hunter access by too many open roads can make elk less secure, thereby increasing vulnerability.

Ironically, many state wildlife agencies once supported road-building projects for that very reason. In the early 1960s, expanding elk populations throughout the West appeared to be growing too large for available winter range. Logging and road-building on federal land seemed good for elk and elk hunting – the large openings in the forest produced forage and the roads provided access for hunters to kill more elk. By the early 1970s, however, wildlife biologists throughout the western United States and Canada noticed some disturbing trends – a decrease in calf production, accompanied by low bull-to-cow rations despite apparent improvements in the quality and quantity of forage.  Hunters simply killed to many mature bulls and wildlife biologists began questioning the impact of logging and roads on habitat security. In a game of hide and seek, elk were increasingly the losers because places to hide decreased and the density of hunters increased.

Vulnerability encompasses a diversity of factors, including hunter access and numbers, habitat, timing and duration of hunting seasons, terrain, weather, hunting equipment technology and hunting regulations.  Managers attempt to strike a delicate balance between elk being too vulnerable to hunting, which may result in excessive harvest, and being vulnerable enough to permit the desired harvest levels and types. Because habitat security can influence vulnerability as much as hunter numbers and hunting equipment technology, relying solely on state wildlife agencies to solve the problems through hunting seasons, bag limits and methods of take is not often effective. Hunting regulations, habitat conditions and the type of access allowed for hunters has increasingly become a shared responsibility of land managers, wildlife managers and hunters.

Hunters should get involved in wildlife and land management and help ensure the critical importance of habitat security is considered in all decisions. By protecting habitat security we protect healthy elk herds and good elk hunting.