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BYU researchers help guide efforts to control elk population

By Ashtyn Asay - | Feb 16, 2022

Courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

Two new hunting laws approved by the Utah State Legislature in the 2021 general session took effect in June 2021. 

Wild animals are hard-wired for survival, and the elk in Utah are no different.

According to research conducted by Brigham Young University wildlife sciences professors, elk move off of Utah public lands once hunting season begins to private lands where they cannot be hunted, then return to public lands once hunting season is over.

The study, which was state-funded, found that elk used public lands 30% less by the middle of hunting season.

“It’s crazy; on the opening day of the hunt, they move, and on the closing day they move back,” Brock McMillan, study senior author and BYU professor, said in a press release. “It’s almost like they’re thinking, ‘Oh, all these trucks are coming, it’s opening day, better move.”

“They understand death,” Randy Larsen, study co-author, and BYU professor said. “They get it; they’ve figured it out.”

While this acute awareness of the hunting season certainly benefits the elk, the owners of the private lands are not so lucky. If undisturbed, the elk can interrupt farming infrastructure by grazing on private lands, effectively stealing food from livestock.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is required by law to manage the elk populations to mitigate damage to private property, however, according to Larsen, this population control is not a popular practice among elk hunters.

“The state had been getting complaints on both sides of the issue with elk migrating to private lands,” Larsen said. “One side says there are not enough elk to hunt — ‘Why are you issuing permits?’ — while private owners are saying ‘The elk are eating us out of house and home!'”

The researchers and members of the DWR were able to confirm that the elk had moved to private lands as they counted the animals on helicopter flights. They found that the elk population was much larger than it should be by state code.

To resolve the issue, the state began issuing limited private-land hunting permits in 2016. BYU researchers, students, and members of the DWR captured elk, put GPS collars on them, then released and tracked them for the next three years to determine if their solution was successful.

They found that two years after private land hunting permits were issued, the elk were found at 42% of public land locations — up significantly from 29% in 2015.

“Allowing private-land elk hunting in collaboration with private landowners has helped Utah keep these elk populations in balance with their habitat,” Maksim Sergeyev, study lead author and BYU master’s student at the time of the study, said in the press release. “Now there are more elk on public lands when the hunt starts and less elk on private lands negatively impacting industries and habitats.”

Utah now permanently issues private-land hunting permits for elk as a result of this work. The State of Utah, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, Rocky Mountain Elk, and others were also key contributors to this study.

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