(ABC4) – It didn’t make any sense.
Not too long ago, in 2015, Covy Jones, who works for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources as the Big Game Coordinator didn’t know who to believe.
The DWR kept hearing from hunters that their elk tags were useless, they couldn’t find any elk to hunt. However, when looking at the data and observations during the offseason, Jones and his team were sure that there were plenty of elk to hunt.
Because the hunter success figures were so low, there was a danger of overpopulation among the elk, which could threaten the natural landscape and the animals themselves when their resources enviably became depleted.
But again, it didn’t make sense, there should have been plenty of elk available for the hunting season. Jones was so sure of it, he even took one local hunter up in a helicopter to get an aerial look at all the elk. When they landed, the hunter’s son asked a poignant question, Jones recalls.
“’Well, dad, who’s right?’” Jones remembers the younger hunter asking.
It was still unknown why there were so many elk, and yet so few being harvested by hunters.
To find out why, the DWR began the largest collar study ever done on elk, capturing more than 500 elk, placing tracking collars on the animals, and letting them back into the wild. What they found, along with help from several partners, including the Ecology Department at Brigham Young University, was fascinating animal behavior.
The elk could sense the beginning of the hunting season and were moving onto private land, where hunters wouldn’t be able to reach them, with incredible precision. The movement pattern showed the animals were moving to safety on the very day of the hunt season’s opening and moving back to their usual habitat a couple of days after it ended when the coast was clear.
They knew it was coming and put themselves out of harm’s way.
“When August came and the hunt started, they knew and they avoided that pressure,” Jones explains. They’re smart animals, they knew what areas were safe. Elk will pick lower nutrition for safety every day.”
Brock McMillan, who works as a professor of wildlife ecology at BYU and had a hand in analyzing the migration patterns from the collared elk, says the project was a terrific example of seeing a problem, developing a hypothesis, and using science and research to find an answer. What he, the team from the DWR, and other partners such as the State, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation learned was that the elk had learned over time that when people are around and the conditions are right, their lives are in danger.
“I think that’s an evolutionary adaptation that allows them to exist, to survive,” he explains. “They live in a landscape that is always risky. There’s always a mountain lion or some other predator there, so they are always aware of risk. And they learned that humans are a risk.”
The team had found the root of the problem. The elk were cloaking themselves in plain sight by becoming physically unavailable on private land. A subsequent, much larger problem would develop if they were allowed to continue to grow in numbers without any regulation from the state. The elk were also destroying a lot of the farming infrastructure they had retreated to. So now, the hunters were joined in their frustration by the landowners.
After finding the problem, the DWR devised a solution, they would allow limited private-land hunting permits on a trial basis, to see if that would thin the herd.
In 2015, the tracking data showed that the elk were on just 29% of public lands. By implementing the private permits, the elk were learning that they couldn’t escape to a privately owned farm with the same degree of success. By 2017, the elk were found on 42% of public locations, where they could appropriately be collected during hunting season.
As it turned out, Jones and his team found that both the hunters and the DWR were correct, there were a lot of elk roaming the Wasatch Front, but they had become invisible during open season.
The solution was a smashing success, he says. Now more private land permits are available each year, and the landowners and hunters have both enjoyed benefits of the new program.
“It’s pretty cool,” Jones says. “This was truly not just a story about elk management, but about partnerships, seeing both sides could be right, and then developing tools to manage a population so that it’s best for everyone.”
So nice try, elk. Local officials, researchers, and hunters have finally caught on to your tricks.