Study targets elk, beetle killWritten by Christy Martinez
Baggs – A project in southern Wyoming aims to address beetle kill timber and the challenges it presents to both hunters and elk as they move around the Medicine Bow National Forest.
The endeavor is in cooperation between the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) and the U.S. Forest Service’s Secure Rural Schools Resource Advisory Committee for the Medicine Bow National Forest. It will examine how use of the forest by both elk and hunters may change throughout different stages of the mountain pine beetle epidemic.
“We see areas of the forest that elk are using, and where hunters are unable to get to the elk, so management as a result of this project could be directed toward getting hunters closer to elk, allowing us to harvest the elk we need to maintain a healthy herd number,” says WGFD Senior Wildlife Biologist Tony Mong, who is based in Baggs.
He says the idea first occurred to him early in 2011 as he was traveling through the forest.
“I was thinking about how people hunt the forest, and also about the increase in elk populations here in Wyoming. I was trying to think like a hunter, but as I walked through the forest, stepping over logs, it became very apparent that it’s difficult to hunt some areas because of the downfall,” explains Mong.
“Part of the information we’ll gather with our project is whether or not hunters are hunting where the elk are – are they able to get there, or is a matter of beetle kill that is causing them not to get to where the elk are?” asks Mong.
“The epidemic of mountain beetle kill within pine forests of the west has been well documented,” says Mong. “More than 1.5 million acres of forest in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming have been affected. This tree mortality is resulting in a drastically changing landscape that could impact elk and hunters in the Sierra Madre portion of the Medicine Bow National Forest.”
According to the WGFD, the Sierra Madre elk herd (SMEH) is one of the keystone elk herds in Wyoming, producing over 30,000 recreation days ($2.6 million in hunter expenditures) and averaging one of the highest elk harvest in the state over the last 10 years. The current herd is estimated to be approximately 8,000 animals, double the population objective of 4,200.
“If hunter participation decreases, the ability to manage elk numbers becomes almost impossible,” says Mong.
Mong says there is a long list of major impacts to consider including: (1) the ability of elk to move through the landscape due to fallen logs, increased vegetation regeneration or beetle kill management activities, (2) the ability of hunters to access elk hunting areas, (3) a loss of hiding cover, (4) increased harvest availability to hunters due to new logging roads constructed for harvesting of trees, (5) increased cripple loss due to longer shots and tougher tracking conditions, (6) decreased harvest availability by hunters due to closed roads and fallen trees and/or (7) increased degradation of forest ecosystem health and wildlife habitat due to higher numbers of elk and a loss of hunter participation in beetle kill areas.”
“This study will provide key information on hunter and elk focus areas, leading to better decisions on future beetle kill management activities including road closures, areas of management focus and key road/trail maintenance areas,” states Mong.
The first phase of the project included a goal to have 100 hunters carry GPS units this hunting season, so the agency could see where and how they hunt.
“We’re not looking for ‘secret hunting’ spots, just the overall use of the forest,” he says, adding they didn’t get quite 100 units out during the season, which ended Oct. 23. “We went to camps up on the mountain in the forest and stopped in and had a conversation with hunters, asking them to volunteer their time and effort.”
Mong adds that he might get more GPS units out in November, with hunters looking for cow elk.
Beginning in January 2012, elk collars will begin to be distributed, and Mong says he’d like to get at least 20 collars distributed, depending on the cost of the collars.
“This fall we wanted to make sure to start getting some information on hunter movements. By next fall, when we start getting movement information for elk, we’ll have both components,” says Mong. “We’ll know how elk are using the forest, and how hunters are hunting the forest, and if those two overlap.”
“With the gathered information, we anticipate being able to create useful publications and produce web-based information for resource managers and the public. We also hope to provide information for hunter education coursework in relation to beetle kill and offer educational presentations designed for hunter groups and other agencies,” says Mong.
He also anticipates some impact on season structure and dates.
“If we see that elk are using the forest at different times, it may impact the seasons. Also, it may impact our recommendations to the Forest Service as far as their management goes and the areas where we could use some beetle kill management,” he explains.
Right now the intial phase of the project is slated for three years and $60,000. Following those three years, Mong says the agency will reassess the study, because it is a long-term problem.