Elk Love Burns Like a Fat Kid Loves Ice Cream

The secret has been out now for quite a while, hunting recently burned forests for elk is a strategy that produces elk and works. So effective is hunting recent burns that onX hunt maps created a dedicated layer for hunters to find those burned areas. Highly nutritious growth in newly burned forests pull elk in like neighborhood kids to the music of an ice cream truck. That’s because the young growth and flush of flowering plants, grasses, and young shrubs and aspen is like ice cream to elk. They love and crave it.

Fact is our western forests adapted under natural disturbances. One of those main disturbances is intervals of fire that convert old forest vegetation from late climax species (conifers) to young nutritious pioneering species (young aspen, grasses, flowering plants).

This piece of forest burned 5 years prior to this photos and now produces some of the biggest elk taken in this state. Notice the burned conifer snags on the ground and the flush of young aspen in the background with grasses and flowering plants covering the forest floor. PC: Muley Freak/Clint Wirick

Bark Beetle Kill as a Disturbance

So what about other disturbances? Are they good for elk too? One disturbance happening across western forested landscapes is massive conifer mortality because of bark beetles. Millions of acres have dead standing and fallen conifers that succumbed to large bark beetle infestations. At first glance one may think that a bark beetle killed forest might attract elk just like burned forests. They both open up conifer canopies and let sunlight to the forest floor right? You wouldn’t be dumb to think this. In fact some really smart people asked the same question.

A Rocky Mountain forest that has fallen prey to a bark beetle infestation. PC: Alexa Okerlund

What the Smart People Thought

A study recently published in the Journal of Wildlife Management looked at this elk-beetle kill forest relationship. Using GPS equipped collars they looked at elk daytime use during the summer in Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest in south-central Wyoming. Researchers expected to find mixed results on how elk used these beetle killed forests.

Researchers used collars equipped with GPS technology similar to this one in their study of beetle kill forest and elk relationship study. PC: Adobe Stock/ Darren Green

They thought the loss of conifer canopy would mean a loss in thermal cover, and more dead downed trees would make it difficult for the elk to move, forcing them to expend more energy. On the other hand, with new understory growth, elk would have more vegetation to forage. They expected elk might avoid the densest areas of downed trees but take advantage of the forage in other places.

What the Smart People Found Out

But what they found was kind of a shock. Instead, elk avoided beetle killed areas altogether, resulting in much less forest habitat that elk use. Beetle kill as a forest disturbance was very different for elk compared to other natural disturbances like wildfire.

Downed trees from beetle killed conifers cover the forest floor. PC: Alexa Okerlund

“When millions of acres of forest have been impacted by the bark beetle epidemic, this leads to a loss of habitat,” said University of Wyoming researcher Bryan G. Lamont, lead author of the study published in the Journal of Wildlife Management.

His team recommends habitat treatments, such as controlled burning, to remove standing dead trees and downed logs, allowing the understory to grow while reducing the energy cost to the elk moving through the forest.

Controlled burns in bark beetle killed forest may improve habitat for elk. PC: Adobe Stock/Dobson

Elk Hunters Take Away

As hunters this might mean many things. Here are a few that come to mind:

  • As an elk hunter you can use these findings when looking for a place to hunt. Heading into a massive beetle kill forests to look for elk might not be the most efficient strategy. Especially if there is a recently burned or even logged area somewhere nearby.
  • Support public land managers working to do habitat treatments in these areas where large stands of beetle killed trees are. Silence on the issue isn’t support either. Voice that support to land managers, in meetings and get involved.
  • Join and support conservation groups who have a much larger and more collective voice on these issues and whose mission aligns with healthy ecosystems and your own ethics. Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation might be a conservation group to start with.
  • Lastly but not least, support scientific research that informs land managers about wildlife and ecosystem management. Science should guide management. We might think we know what is going on but until the scientific method is applied and reviewed by other scientist in the field it isn’t going to drive management at a meaningful scale.

If you’re looking for a place to hunt elk OTC this year check out this Muley Freak article.

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