Seeking ground less traveled: how elk respond to recreation
Recreation on public land is increasingly popular in the Pacific Northwest. But recreation management requires balancing opportunities for people to enjoy the outdoors with mitigating the effects on wildlife and other natural resources.
Recreation and wildlife managers who are grappling with these issues asked scientists to quantify the impacts of motorized and non-motorized recreation on elk.
In Science Findings # 219, the USDA Forest Service – Pacific Northwest Research Station explores recent research in Oregon that sought to measure how elk respond to various human, and especially recreation-based, activities.
Elk are highly valued for hunting and viewing by the public. As large herbivores, they also play a critical role in many ecosystems of the Intermountain West.
A large fenced area within the Starkey Experimental Forest and Range in eastern Oregon provided a unique setting for assessing how a wide-ranging species like elk respond to four types of recreation.
Real-time data recorded by telemetry units worn by people and elk alike allowed scientists to establish a cause-effect relationship between human movements and activities and elk responses.
Scientists found that elk avoided areas where humans were recreating. All-terrain vehicle use was most disruptive human-initiated activity, followed by mountain biking, hiking, and horseback riding.
When exposed to these activities, elk spent more time moving rather than feeding and resting.
The findings build on earlier studies, which suggested that frequent disruptions and movement to avoid human contact increase mortality rates for newborn elk.
Researchers also found that such disruptions effectively reduce the total amount of usable habitat available for elk herds.
Land managers can use this information to assess trade-offs between multiple, and often competing, land uses. When combined with planning efforts that include stakeholder engagement, this research may offer a clearer path forward on balancing human and wildlife needs on National Forests and other public and privately-held lands.