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Effects of hunter access and habitat security on elk habitat selection in landscapes with a public and private land matrix


  • Associate Editor: Joshua Millspaugh


Traditional elk habitat management on public land has focused on providing security habitat for bull elk during the hunting season to provide for both adequate hunter opportunity and bull survival. This paradigm has given less consideration to adult female elk habitat use, patterns of adjacent land ownership, and hunter access. This paradigm also was developed when elk population sizes were much smaller in many areas. In many Rocky Mountain states, the focus of elk population management has recently shifted to reducing or maintaining elk population sizes, necessitating a better understanding of the implications of security habitat management, as well as patterns of adjacent land ownership and hunter access, on adult female elk. We addressed this need by testing the hypotheses that during the hunting season: 1) adult female elk selection for areas prohibiting or limiting hunter access is stronger than elk selection for publicly owned and managed elk security habitat, 2) these effects occur during the archery hunting period and intensify during the rifle hunting period, and 3) the effects of hunter access on selection are consistent among herds that occupy landscapes characterized by a matrix of public and private lands. We used global position system locations collected from 82 females in 2 different Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) elk herds to evaluate effects of hunter access, security habitat as defined by the Hillis paradigm, and other landscape attributes on adult female elk resource selection during the pre-hunting, archery, rifle, and post-hunting periods. We found that female elk selection for areas restricting public hunting access was stronger than selection for security habitat in both study areas, and that the density of roads open to motorized use was the strongest predictor of elk distribution. Increases in selection for areas that restricted hunting access occurred during the rifle hunting period, and we did not find consistent evidence these movements were triggered by the archery hunting period. Our results provide evidence that in landscapes characterized by a matrix of public and privately owned lands, traditional concepts of elk security habitat need to be expanded to also include areas that restrict hunter access to plan for elk population management that is regulated through adult female harvest. Future efforts should investigate whether elk use of areas that restrict hunter access are flexible behavioral responses to hunting risk, or if these behaviors are passed from generation to generation such that a learned pattern of private land use becomes the normal movement pattern rather than a short-term behavioral response. Published 2013. This article is a U.S. Government work and is in the public domain in the USA.