How Predators and Forest Management Affect Elk Numbers

How Predators and Forest Management Affect Elk Numbers

Elk numbers around Yellowstone Park have declined over recent decades. This is usually blamed on wolves and bears. But according to this video, forest management probably plays a larger role.



NOTE: this post was originally posted to this site on November 2, 2020.

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  • One concern I have here is the use of the term “forest management”. The fact that burned-over forest land goes through natural succession isn’t exactly management. And the fact that there were huge fires a hundred years ago isn’t management either. One conclusion might be that elk populations are highly dependent on things that are vastly beyond our control.

    • First I thank you for this comment.

      You and I define “forest management” and “natural succession” differently. As shown across the West, doing nothing can be the most powerful of all management practices. The forest conditions to which this has led are neither “natural” nor “vastly beyond our control”.

      At Pitchstone Waters, we can see that the public lands around us are accumulating highly-flammable understory material faster than nature can cycle it away. We’ve managed ranches for 50-years. In our opinion, without change, unnatural and catastrophic fire is coming. This is not an “if”, but a “when”.

      Well-intentioned “hands-off” forest management practices are being followed to “protect” certain species, in our case near Yellowstone, grizzly bear. Suppression and/or elimination of logging, livestock, hunting, roads and human access, among other things, has reduced food production for many species including elk. Our once productive public forests are now unhealthy, money-losing firetraps. Trees are dying from massive insect plagues. The inevitable catastrophic fires to which all this leads – like those in California and Oregon – burn everything: bear habitat, bear prey species, bear forage and the bears themselves. The chemicals used to fight wildfires will pollute forest streams and poison fisheries. Then there is loss of human life, of property, of air and water quality, not to mention massive atmospheric carbon releases.

      This is neither “natural” nor “vastly beyond our control”. To forestall this on Pitchstone Waters, we have used concentrated herds of goats and cows to reduce our brush and leafy spurge, increase grass and open the forest for wildlife. Obviously though, animals can’t remove countless “fire ladders,” the dead trees leaning into the forest canopy. Nor can they clear a forest now so overgrown it blocks sunlight penetration, shading the forest floor and accelerating canopy fire.

      It is common sense to prevent such unnatural fires by reducing the accumulated material on the forest floor, removing fire ladders, and selectively thinning. And we need more not fewer roads so firefighters can access fires, ranchers can manage herds, and the public can use public land.

      If as the agencies say, fire dangers are increasing because of fossil fuels, then these steps are even more important.

      Thanks again John.

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