August 27, 2008
Yellowstone Fires Sparked Elk Foundation Work in 24 States
MISSOULA, Mont.—This year marks the 20th anniversary of the great Yellowstone fires. It was an event that turned America’s first national park into a living laboratory for measuring fire’s effects on habitat for elk and other wildlife, and shaped the conservation vision of a young Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Just four years old in 1988, the Elk Foundation saw Yellowstone as the impetus for two new programs that remain top priorities today.
These efforts have now benefited 24 states with improved habitat and healthier elk herds.
The Elk Foundation’s first Yellowstone-inspired program was a more aggressive habitat stewardship effort emphasizing controlled fire. Today the Elk Foundation has facilitated more than 870 projects involving prescribed burns across 18 states, enhancing over 1 million acres of elk habitat, nearly all on public land.
“More than 97 percent of these projects have occurred since 1988 with similar habitat benefits as those being documented in Yellowstone. Fire has returned treated lands to a more natural condition, opened forest canopies, restarted plant succession and added diversity, stimulated aspen growth and increased nutritional values of certain grasses that elk need for grazing,” said Tom Toman of the Elk Foundation.
A roundup of RMEF-funded prescribed burns:
North Carolina—425 acres
North Dakota—35 acres
New Mexico—123,366 acres
South Dakota—5,008 acres
Biologists also learned some less pleasant lessons from Yellowstone due to the massive scale and unfortunate timing of the historic wildfires.
Toman explained, “In the months afterward, we saw dramatic declines in local elk populations—up to 40 percent loss in some areas—because so much winter range was decimated so late in the year. It showed us how not to conduct prescribed burns. But mostly it was a vivid example of what can happen to elk when crucial habitat is suddenly lost. And that led directly to our concern for protecting habitat from wildfire as well as subdivisions and other land-use changes.”
Thus, the second Elk Foundation priority to emerge from Yellowstone was a new program dedicated to permanent lands protection.
Today the organization has completed over 320 land protection projects such as conservation easements, acquisitions, conveyances to state and federal agencies, etc. These projects have conserved 861,211 acres (including many in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem) across 21 states.
Some of these acres have been opened for public access; others remain privately held with legal agreements helping to ensure crucial habitat for the region’s elk herd.
A roundup of RMEF permanent land protection projects:
New Mexico—99,161 acres
North Dakota—6,326 acres
South Dakota—31,815 acres