Wyoming Elk Collared to Monitor Movements in Beetle Killed Forests

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Twenty-six elk were captured and fitted with Global Positioning System (GPS) collars on February 17 and 18 as part of an ongoing study to monitor how hunters and elk use beetle-killed forests.

Baggs wildlife biologist Tony Mong says biologists with Quicksilver Air, Inc. captured the elk from a helicopter.

“Elk were captured using a net gun delivered from a helicopter with the doors taken off,” Mong said. “They collared elk from Battle Mountain to Jep Canyon, just north of the Continental Divide. We plan on collecting the elk movement GPS collar data for several years, which will allow us to begin to understand how beetle kill downfall trees may impact how elk use the forest.”

The elk collaring is one part of a cooperative study 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. The study will provide information on how hunters and elk use the forest, and how that use may change throughout different stages of the mountain pine beetle epidemic. It will also focus on elk hunters and on elk movements within the Sierra Madre portion of the Medicine Bow National Forest.

Mong says the study was implemented because of the potential impacts beetle kill will have on the way elk use the forest and hunters hunt in the forest.

“The epidemic of mountain beetle kill within pine forests of the west has been well documented,” Mong said. “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.”

Mong says the Sierra Madre elk herd is one of the keystone elk herds in Wyoming, producing over 30,000 recreationdays ($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.

“Some indication of impacts to forest ecosystem health by the higher elk population have already been documented in the Sierra Madre range by both range staff and wildlife biologists,” Mong said. “If hunter participation decreases, the ability to manage elk numbers becomes almost impossible.”

“There is a long list of possible impacts from the changes that will occur with beetle kill 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.”

“Gathering information for resource managers in relation to how hunters and elk utilize the forest before, during,and after the beetle kill epidemic will be an integral part in protecting and improving forest ecosystem health and maintaining viable wildlife habitat throughout the beetle kill areas,” Mong said. “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.”

Mong recruited elk hunters in hunt area 21 to carry Global Positioning System (GPS) units throughout one day of their hunt. This information may allow Mong to see if hunting patterns change or if hunters are unable to access areas of the forest due to downfall from beetle kill.

“Information gathered from just one of the hunters will be of little use,” Mong said. “It will be the collective hunting effort of all hunters from the study that will provide valuable data. We’re not looking for “secret hunting” spots, just the overall use of the forest.”

“With the data gathered 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.”
(Contact: Lucy Diggins (307) 875-3223)