Elk NetworkRestoring Elk Country – Oak Creek Washington

Conservation , Restoring Elk Country | November 23, 2020

See how RMEF is Restoring Elk Country


Between 2009 and 2011, RMEF helped spearhead an effort to purchase more than 10,000 acres of private timberlands that Plum Creek Timber had for sale 20 miles southeast of Ellensburg—home to elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, Chinook salmon, bull trout and westslope cutthroats. Yet the diverse property, now part of the Oak Creek Wildlife Area, came with baggage—thousands of plastic protective tree tubes Plum Creek had placed to protect pine seedlings. The tubes accelerate growth and improve tree survival rates, but are now superfluous. That is until the same rough-and-tough band of RMEF volunteers that worked so hard to get this land protected in the first place got involved. In March, they collected around 7,200 tubes from 36 acres. That will be followed up by Washington’s 2015 Summer Rendezvous volunteer work party held August 14-16, which will tend to the remaining tree tubes and help with the construction of an aspen stand enclosure.


Some trophy bulls roam the Williams Ranger District of the Kaibab National Forest 50 miles south of the Grand Canyon. But you will find only a few reliable springs and not a single perennial stream. Yet thanks to a recent project to build a trick tank for wildlife, elk here should be far better off. A trick tank collects precipitation via a metal apron that it funnels into a covered tank to minimize evaporation. It then dispenses water on-demand into a basin from which animals can drink. RMEF helped provide funding to the Arizona Game and Fish Department to construct the 15,000-gallon low-maintenance water catchment, along with a 200-foot by 200-foot livestock exclusion fence. Wildlife in the area previously relied on four steel stock tanks built in the 1950s and several dirt tanks, all of which are susceptible to running dry in times of drought. This new water tank should be much more resilient and benefit not only elk but also mule deer, antelope and other wildlife. It also complements a multi-year, 15,000-acre habitat restoration project occurring now in this area. 


The landscape surrounding the Buffalo National River was once a rolling prairie supporting vast herds of elk that was kept wide open by frequent wildfires. Today it is a dense hardwood forest that forces elk and other wildlife to search for good grassy openings. With RMEF’s help, habitat managers are working to turn back the clock. RMEF funds helped state and federal fire specialists burn more than 17,000 acres of forest on the Buffalo National River and nearby Gene Rush Wildlife Management Area, allowing the native grasses that make up 50 percent of an elk’s diet to rebound. Managers also sprayed invasive weeds with herbicides, and tilled and seeded old agricultural fields. These improvements to forage on public lands should also help keep elk off private farms nearby while enhancing habitat for an array of other species at the same time. Biologists have reported seeing more black bears and wild turkeys since the treatment.


With a population of more than 15,000 elk, the Gunnison Basin holds some of the most productive elk country found anywhere. Yet many factors affect where elk spend their time here, including weather, hunting, public and private land grazing, recreation, travel management, human development and changes in habitat. It’s been more than a decade since biologists conducted a formal study of elk movements across this 8,000-square-mile hunter’s playground, so RMEF, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Gunnison Basin Habitat Partnership Program are helping fund a research project to get a better look at migratory elk. Starting in 2013, biologists captured and GPS-collared 50 cow elk over a two-year period, which should shed ample light on the wants and needs of this fabled herd and help guide future management. 


Invasive Eastern red cedar is a serious issue in southwest Nebraska, outcompeting native tree species like American elm, ash and hackberry, and reducing ground forage by 50 percent or more for wildlife. It also increases the likelihood of catastrophic wildfire, and has effectively taken over some areas, including parts of the Wapiti Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Lincoln County. RMEF helped purchase this land starting in 2003. Now the Elk Foundation is working with Pheasants Forever and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to remove these cedars from the Wapiti WMA, which opens the understory to allow more beneficial vegetation to flourish. The WMA will see increased forage for elk in the area, in the long run helping to grow Nebraska’s prized herd.


In 2013, the Pony Complex wildfire tore across 150,000 acres northeast of Mountain Home, leaving 5,000 elk without much to eat as they headed into winter. Biologists knew native bunchgrasses would be quick to rebound, but worried about the bitterbrush shrubs that had been all but eliminated. In heavy snow, that had the potential to leave elk, deer and antelope in dire straits for calories. RMEF partnered with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to fund hand-planting of 400,000 antelope bitterbrush seedlings to restore this critical winter range as quickly as possible. RMEF also funded a similar project in 2014 to plant 14,000 bitterbrush seedlings on 700 acres of BLM land in the Jarbidge foothills along the Idaho-Nevada border that was burned by the Murphy Complex wildfire.


Thousands of elk make a living where Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park and the Black Hills National Forest collide, yet this fire-adapted landscape hasn’t seen a good burn since the Cicero Peak fire of 1990, which blackened 14,518 acres. Coordinating a prescribed fire with so many agencies plus private landowners involved is no easy task. Elk have proven to be a catalyst to get it done. A new partnership between RMEF, state game managers, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and private landowners recently resulted in a prescribed burn across 2,000 acres completed last fall. It substantially reduced the risk of catastrophic fire while rejuvenating the quantity and quality of forage for elk and other wildlife.