Reducing Reliance on Supplemental Winter Feeding in Elk (Cervus canadensis): An Applied Management Experiment at Deseret Land and Livestock Ranch, Utah
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Wildlife managers have fed elk in North America for nearly 100 years. Giving winter feed to elk can compensate for a shortage of natural winter range and may boost elk populations while also helping prevent commingling with livestock and depredation of winter feed intended for livestock. In contrast to these benefits of supplemental feeding, there are economic and environmental costs associated with feeding, and elk herds that winter on feeding grounds have a higher risk of contracting and transmitting disease. Brucellosis is of primary concern now, and Chronic Wasting Disease may be in the future. Many see the discontinuation of winter-feeding programs as a necessary step for decreasing the risk of disease spread due to high animal densities associated with feeding during winter. My research evaluated the use of behavioral training to reduce reliance on supplemental winter feeding of elk, while minimizing population reductions and human-wildlife conflicts. My study was conducted at Deseret Land & Livestock (DLL) in Rich County, UT, where managers at DLL have over 20 years of data on elk feeding during winters of varying intensities. I tested the effectiveness of range improvements, strategic cattle grazing, dispersed supplemental feeding, hunting, and herding to distribute and hold elk in desired areas during winter. I compared elk numbers on the feed ground during this study with historic data on DLL, and also contrasted elk responses with other comparable feed sites in Wyoming that served as controls. In 2 mild winters we completely eliminated elk feeding without incident and were able to reduce the quantity and duration of feeding during 1 severe winter. Since the conclusion of my study, DLL has further reduced quantity and duration of feeding during severe winters, and has completely eliminated feeding in light winters. Based on a Before After Control Impact (BACI) analysis, the reduction in the proportion of the elk population fed at the study site was significantly less than the proportion of the elk populations fed at the control sites in Wyoming (P = 0.057). Based on these results, I anticipate wildlife managers can decrease dependence on costly supplemental winter feeding and reduce the risks of disease while keeping human-wildlife conflicts at a minimum. This research illustrates an adaptive method that can enable wildlife managers to keep elk populations in northern Utah at or near their current size, while constraining disease outbreak and transmission risks within "acceptable" levels.
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