For 17 years Jeff Corson has owned property on the Medicine Bow National Forest near Baggs and Encampment. Walking through the woods, both hiking in the summer and stalking elk in the fall, he’s noticed more and more deadfall.
“It’s a lot harder for me to get around,” he said. “And there’s still a lot left to fall.”
As of 2013, more than half of Medicine Bow’s 1.3 million acres were impacted by the mountain pine beetle. The epidemic has receded, but in the aftermath forests are left with thousands of acres of trees that are dead and falling. Those same trees that are make it difficult for Corson to get around could also present challenges for elk on the move.
A Wyoming Game and Fish study is investigating how the aftermath of the mountain pine beetle epidemic is impacting elk and hunter movement in the Sierra Madre range on the Medicine Bow National Forest. The study is the first of its kind, and the data collected could be used for managing forests across the West, said Tony Mong, a senior wildlife biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish.
“Nobody is looking at ungulate or large mammal responses (to beetle kill forests) and it’s obviously a big issue,” he said.
A few years ago Mong noticed there were parts of the forest that were clogged with deadfall, making it difficult to travel. He started wondering; if it is causing him problems, what was it doing to the elk? And what about hunters who use the forest and help manage the elk population? How were they getting to their favorite spots and hauling their game out with so many obstacles?
About two and a half years ago Wyoming Game and Fish biologists collared 26 elk in the Sierra Madre range to see how and where they are moving in relation to downed trees. Researchers collared another 17 elk last year and plan to collar more in the coming years.
In addition to collaring elk, researchers are also outfitting hunters with GPS units to record how they move. In the last few years about 250 hunters have recorded data as they hunted, Mong said.
Hunters have been overwhelmingly — and surprisingly — supportive of the study, said Bryan Lamont a graduate student at the University of Wyoming working on the project. He worried hunters wouldn’t want their movements tracked — even anonymously — as they head to their favorite spots. But hunters wanted to help, saying they hoped data would direct land management plans that will restore areas they’ve hunted in for years.
Lamont heard stories from many of the hunters about how the landscape has changed the way they hunt on it. It’s harder to recover and remove animals in the deadfall. Many hunters said they stay on the fringe of deadfall areas, or even move to places with more aspen.
The data Lamont and Mong collect now will provide baseline information to compare in upcoming years as more trees fall and biologists collar additional elk. They will be able to see if movement patterns are changing significantly. The data will also guide wildlife and landscape management, which are interconnected, Mong said.
“If we can’t manage the elk herd, if the numbers get too high, it suppresses the forest’s ability to regenerate,” Mong said. “We want to know how the elk use the forest, but more importantly, how we continue to manage the population at a level that is sustainable and allows for proper regeneration of the forest.”
Since it started, the study has attracted attention from additional funding partners, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service. The Medicine Bow-Routt Resource Advisory Committee awarded the project nearly $60,000 in 2011 and about $20,000 in 2014, said Aaron Voos, spokesman with the Forest Service.
The research will be helpful in informing management planning, Voos said. “How exactly we are going to use it depends on what the findings are.” The data could show areas where forest managers need to prioritize deadfall removal or add new infrastructure such as trails.
The first set of elk collars were programmed to fall off the animals this December. Researchers will spend the next year analyzing the data.
The study, which Mong hopes continues long-term, will benefit other areas. What they find will likely be applicable to other forests impacted by mountain pine beetles. “This is going to be key for forest managers in the West,” he said.