JWM: Beetle-kill forests offer some refuge for elk from hunters

By Joshua Rapp Learn

An elk appears along Wyoming’s Firehole River. ©Ken Lund

Elk sometimes turn to forests affected by bark-beetle epidemics, possibly finding refuges in areas hunters mostly avoid, according to new research.

The bark‐beetle (Dendoctronus ponderosae) epidemic has killed off large areas of forest in south central Wyoming. An earlier study showed that elk (Cervus canadensis) avoid beetle-kill forests during the summer months in the Rocky Mountains. But the researchers wanted to know whether these beetle-kill areas would have a secondary effect on hunters that pursued elk.

TWS member Bryan Lamont, a terrestrial biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the lead author of the study published recently in the Journal of Wildlife Management, GPS-collared about 90 elk to track their movements, then had about 500 hunters carry GPS devices. After retrieving the data, researchers added the location points on a map together with data about which areas represented beetle-kill forest tracts.

The tracking collars showed that during the summer, elk consistently avoided bark-beetle affected forest. But this changed later, when elk hunting season arrived.

“Elk did increase use of beetle kill as we went into the hunting season,” said Lamont, who was a master’s student at the University of Wyoming when he conducted this study.

But he found that hunters didn’t use this area as much when seeking elk to harvest.

“In general, rifle hunters avoided beetle kill, whereas the archery hunters were willing to go into beetle kill,” Lamont said.

Overall, combined with the other study, Lamont said the research showed, counter to his team’s expectations, that despite increased early successional forage due to the bark-beetle epidemic, elk used traditional foraging areas in meadows and open basins during the summer. But during the later hunting season, elk were more likely to use beetle-killed areas — possibly due to the changed structure and composition of the affected forests — giving some marginal refuge from hunters who avoided these beetle-kill areas.

This article features research that was published in a TWS peer-reviewed journal. Individual online access to all TWS journal articles is a benefit of membership. Join TWS now to read the latest in wildlife research.

Joshua LearnJoshua Rapp Learn is a science writer at The Wildlife Society. Contact him at jlearn@wildlife.org with any questions or comments about his article.

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