The big picture by J.T. Korkow: More elk in the Black Hills?
June 18, 2015
In my last commentary, I said I would comment more specifically on the move to increase elk numbers in the Black Hills National Forest. Here goes:
The elk is a grand animal that just about every big game hunter will put at the top of his bucket list to bag. Hunters will pay more for an elk license, drive further, and spend more on supplies and services to elk hunt, creating economic opportunity. Add to the fact the Black Hills is one of the largest areas of public land in the state and can offer a better than average opportunity in bagging an animal if one draws a permit, I can see why it soon became a popular location for South Dakota big game hunters. That said, I am assuming from past experience in working with elected officials and government agencies, South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks Department is most likely responding to many interested hunting groups attempting to increase the elk numbers in the Black Hills National Forest.
In a copy of a previous letter sent to the Black Hills National Forest Supervisor from the Department of Game, Fish, and Parks, the BNFH Supervisor was chastised for poor range conditions and unmaintained water sources, inferring poor management of domestic livestock within the forest. After boasting of their ranching backgrounds, the SDGF&P then offered their expertise and assistance in managing the resource to improve the condition of the forest. I found the letter to have an underlying tone, somewhat like the fella that called and offered to fix my broken computer he hacked into earlier …or maybe like the novice trying to tell the mechanic how to fix his car! And now, after citing all these gross deficiencies on the landscape for potential habitat, you want to increase the number of forage eaters? Did I miss something?
I picked up a news clip from Pierre this week that reported on the biologist survey of elk numbers in the seven districts within BHNF. There were reported 4,624 head of elk counted in the helicopter survey, with the model estimate at over 5,000 head. That equates to about 1 elk per 400 acres.
To compare, note some points from a report made by Montana biologist Dean Wahlee. He had surveyed about 3,300 square miles of elk habitat (equivalent in size to BHNF with less population and less commercial activity) and reported nearly 1,500 elk. That equates to 1,408 acres per 1 head of elk. He commented: "Based on sportsman and landowner interest in maintaining current populations combined with minimal game damage complaints from private landowners, I feel we have found a healthy balance between optimizing recreational opportunity and minimizing local impacts. However, I have concerns going forward about allowing population growth to continue as it has and feel we are rapidly moving toward a point where growth could get away from us. If elk populations continue to increase at the present rate, there will be 4,000 head elk in the same area a decade from now. That many elk would cause more conflict than enjoyment. Overpopulated elk would lead to poor landowner tolerance and could degrade habitat, leading to mule deer population declines. If population approaches or exceeds 4,000 individuals, it will become difficult to achieve sufficient harvest to manage population growth. Now is the time to act. Ten or 15 years from now will be too late," says Wahlee. (Billings Gazette, May 31, 2013)
There are problems associated with a heavy concentration of elk. The Upper Yellowstone Region is a prime example of what can happen when numbers exceed the range conditions. The migration of the herds to private land in the winter not only decimated domestic hay and winter forage supplies, but then required herding back to the park before calving, as elk are carriers of brucellosis that can be contracted by cattle. There is not a small cost to trying to re-establish a brucellosis free status once you lose it, and the state of Montana has felt the sting of having to cost share testing cow herds for brucellosis since.
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Elk and cattle utilize the range differently and can co-exist….but in proper balance. Those who make their living on the range have a much better grasp on what the landscape is doing. They will still be there after all the hunters go home.
In the big picture, domestic grazing on the forest can be easily managed and adjustments can be made as necessary, depending on range and climate conditions. With wild elk, it is much more of a challenge. They do not respect fences, and are not easily herded, and hunter success rates are not dependable. As far as a management tool for a healthy forest and watershed, domestic grazing makes much more sense than overpopulating with wild animals. Game, Fish, and Parks Department needs to stay within their jurisdiction and allow the Forest Service to manage their own turf.
"For we all stumble in many things. If anyone does not stumble in a word, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle a whole body. Indeed, we put bits in horses mouths that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Even so the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest a little fire kindles!" James 3:2-3, 5