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SCIF Helping Modernize Elk Management

September 2020
Author: SCI

Few things will get a hunter’s blood pumping more than the distinct sound of an elk bugle rolling through the autumn fog at sunrise. Arguably the most iconic species in North America, elk are certainly one of most sought after by Huntin’ Fool members and big game permit applicants.

Elk hunting generates more than $1 billion in economic activity annually, the second most of any species behind deer and significantly more than ducks. Approximately one million elk live in North America today thanks to conservation efforts funded through the sale of hunting licenses and equipment. Elk need a tremendous amount of space to roam; conserving quality habitat and maintaining connections among elk populations are important priorities for ensuring North America’s elk herds remain robust enough to support ample hunting opportunities. With expanding populations of many predators combined with human development in the West, it is critical to understand the impacts on herd health.

The Safari Club International Foundation (SCIF) has been involved in research focused on elk across North America, most recently investing heavily in projects in Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, and Alberta.
Colorado is home to more than 100,000 elk, more than any other state or province. Ongoing research with Parks & Wildlife on the western slope’s Gunnison Basin is shaping management decisions by revealing previously unknown information about habitat usage and movement. GPS tracking collars monitor herds as they move across various property boundaries and highlight the need for increased collaboration amongst private landowners and both state and federal public land management agencies. The project is helping to improve strategic habitat protection and enhancement activities, shedding light on how Colorado’s growing human footprint may destabilize elk movements.

In southern Alberta, SCIF is involved in the longest-running elk project in North America, monitoring the changing ecological dynamics and spatial patterns of the Ya Ha Tinda herd, whose native range includes Banff National Park. The project uses a combination of GPS tracking and mortality tracing to study migratory movements and determine the impacts of hunting and predation from wolves and grizzly bears. This herd has produced some of the largest bull elk on the continent and is a significant tourist attraction in the park, which makes up a portion of their range. This specific herd has declined from more than 2,000 animals in the early 1990s to less than 500 today due to the recovery of large predators and growing challenges related to conflict with increasing human impacts on the landscape. This herd also exhibits a migration pattern that requires collaboration between private landowners and several public land management entities to ensure habitat and spatial requirements are conserved, further underlining the importance of this research.

In addition to the two ongoing projects, SCIF has historically been involved in research focused on wolf and mountain lion predation rates on elk calves in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains, designated wildlife migration corridors in Wyoming and their impact on elk herds, and other studies and management activities across elk country. SCIF is also increasing their engagement on Chronic Wasting Disease, which could be a growing challenge for elk management moving forward.

Understanding the impact that human development and shifting ecological dynamics have on North America’s elk herds is vital for developing scientifically sound management plans capable of addressing modern management problems, leading to the robust hunting opportunities hunters seek. SCIF will continue to work with a broad spectrum of partners to ensure that elk populations across the continent remain strong and support sustainable hunting opportunities for future generations.