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Biodiversity and its management on the National Elk Refuge, Wyoming


Noah P. Matson

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Yale Forestry & Environmental Studies Bulletin



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The National Elk Refuge is home to 178 species of birds, 49 species of mammals, 382 species of vascular plants, five species of native fish, five species of reptiles and amphibians, and unknown numbers of species of invertebrates and non-vascular plants. The refuge is charged with protecting, enhancing, and restoring populations and habitats of all the species found on its grounds. Since its inception, however, management has focused on elk. Supplemental feeding has supported higher numbers of elk than the refuge ecosystem can handle, and it has long been recognized that the large concentration of these ungulates has had negative impacts on a number of biotic communities. Elk have reduced and eliminated woody tree and shrub cover along riparian areas, limited aspen regeneration, reduced sage-grassland structural diversity, and rendered areas prone to exotic plant invasion. If current management continues, these vegetative communities and their associated wildlife species will continue to decline. This paper recommends that the refuge needs: (1) to define its commitment to the protection of biodiversity before it can manage biodiversity more sustainably; (2) to manage on a regional level and coordinate with other agencies and private landowners; (3) to establish a comprehensive monitoring and data analysis program to determine if management prescriptions are successful and to adapt management to changing information and conditions; (4) to reduce supplemental feeding and the size of the elk herd; (5) to take measures to restore degraded communities; and (6) to build a constituency for biodiversity. The report is designed to be a resource for future activities and a summary of past trends in management and biodiversity.