A new study reveals elk depend on private land during the winter in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
A new study highlights the importance of both protected and private lands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) for wildlife migration.
The study specifically focuses on elk in the GYE, which includes much of western Wyoming and is ‘one of the largest nearly intact temperate-zone ecosystems on Earth,’ according to the National Park Service.
Researchers found in their study that elk heavily depend on private land during the winter. Migration routes in this area also go through protected lands – like national parks and forests – but private property is what links the routes together.
Lead researcher Laura Gigliotti spoke with Wyoming Public Radio’s Caitlin Tan.
Caitlin Tan: You mentioned in your research that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is made up of a lot of public, private and protected land that wildlife have to migrate through. So can you tell us a little bit about why that can be kind of complicated?
Laura Gigliotti: It can be really complicated because this ecosystem is so well known for being an area with a lot of protected land. So if you ask people to name a national park, a lot of them will probably name Yellowstone. It's probably one of the most widely recognized national parks in the country. So because of that, there's kind of this misconception that all wildlife in this ecosystem are really relying on those protected lands, which they definitely are. But the piece that's kind of missing, and that our research focused on, was looking beyond these protected areas and looking at the private lands and working lands that some of these wide ranging animals, like elk, also rely on.
CT: Can you tell us a little bit about your findings, and maybe also kind of boil it down to what it could mean for the everyday person living in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem?
LG: So our main finding was that, unsurprisingly, elk in these different herds use lands that have different ownership types. So not only are they using these protected areas, like the national parks and the national forest, but they're also relying heavily on private lands, particularly in their winter ranges. So this is really important, just because it highlights the fact that these private lands are really important for these elk herds. So moving forward, making sure that these private lands continue to support these large herds and their migrations is really important.
CT: Why is it important? How can it affect wildlife health?
LG: So one big thing is that we focus specifically on elk – although these same patterns are probably found in a number of different species. But just thinking about elk, they are really critical to the larger environment. They serve as prey species for a variety of different predators. They're also really important culturally and also economically. A lot of people come to the area to either see animals or hunt them during hunting seasons. So ensuring that these populations are sustained going forward is important, not only for a larger ecosystem but also for humans that also live in the area.
CT: The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is definitely a growing area, and there's new development happening quite often, or at least being proposed. New houses are being built, and rezoning proposals between Jackson and Pinedale have been pretty common in the last couple of years. How do you think that could impact wildlife? And what are some things that you would hope people in charge would keep in mind to support wildlife?
LG: So you're definitely right. There is a lot of development going on throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and I think in recent years it's accelerated.
One finding that came out of our research was that a lot of these private lands that elk are using don't have any sort of zoning on them. So this could mean that there's potential for unregulated development going forward, which could severely fragment some of these habitats that elk are using.
One thing to definitely emphasize is that just because elk and other wildlife are using private lands, it doesn't mean that those lands are actually bad for the wildlife. In fact, a lot of animals actually thrive on these private lands. So we aren't necessarily saying that elk on private lands means that there's going to be issues for elk in the future. But an important thing is just making sure that there's enough space in these private lands. So again, not overrun with development, and making sure that there's connectivity between these winter ranges and the migratory routes in the summer ranges with these animals.
CT: Could you give us some examples of what that could look like if an area was being subdivided or what kind of specific things people could keep in mind that might be helpful?
LG: I think a big thing is focusing on just educating the public. I think a lot of people might not realize the larger picture of what it means that elk and other wildlife might be using some of the lands that they own. Part of that is there's a lot of extension programs for landowners to learn more about ways that they can maintain their landscapes to make them more wildlife friendly. There's a lot of fencing initiatives going on and throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to try to encourage either building new fences that are wildlife friendly fences, or removing fences from the landscape that aren't really serving a purpose. In terms of different conservation strategies on private lands, it could mean things like conservation easements, habitat leases or improvement incentives for landowners. So overall, there's a variety of different ways that conservation on these private lands can be implemented to benefit the wildlife on them.
CT: Can development and wildlife migration conservation coexist if done carefully?
LG: So, I think there is a place for development in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. I think no matter what, development is going to continue there – lots of people are moving into the area and wanting to build and subdivide. So I don't think there's any stopping developments. But, I think there are ways that development can be planned. So it's strategic and can benefit wildlife as well as the humans who are also trying to enjoy the area. So we definitely aren’t advocating for any right way to establish new developments or that type of thing, but just trying to give a general overview of some of these different things that can be taken into consideration in relation to wildlife.