Wildlife management: Researchers use targeted livestock grazing to improve elk habitat and mitigate conflict
Wyoming’s high elk population numbers have caused conflicts with producers for years, and the issue remains a hot button topic in many discussions throughout the state.
Recently, several agencies and organizations have recognized the growing problem and have made it a priority to brainstorm ways to solve it. One idea is being put to the test by the University of Wyoming (UW) in Park County’s Sunlight Basin.
During the annual Fremont County Farm and Ranch Days, held in Riverton Feb. 7-8, UW Extension Educator Barton Stam presented on the university’s current research, which looks at improving elk habitat through targeted livestock grazing in an effort to keep elk on specified wildlife management areas and off of Wyoming ranches.
To begin, Stam shared UW’s project was inspired by a similar project conducted by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP).
He explained in the 1960-70s, Montana FWP bought a private ranch for elk habitat, and the first thing they did was remove all cattle grazing from the property.
“But, this ranch was surrounded by other cattle ranches that were still in operation, and after they removed grazing, elk use went down,” Stam said. “The elk basically left the property and moved to surrounding ranches where producers still had cattle grazing.”
After local ranchers were plagued with enough elk conflict to encourage Montana FWP to make a change, the agency resumed cattle grazing during spring and summer months to improve the habitat and encourage elk to return to the property.
Inspired by the Montana case, UW researchers teamed up with local ranchers and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) to test the theory at the Sunlight Wildlife Habitat Management Area (HMA), located between Cody and the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park.
Stam explained the HMA, owned by WGFD, is made up of irrigated meadows surrounded by foothills and nearby mountain ranges and was designed to provide critical habitat for all wildlife, but especially as winter habitat for elk as they migrate out of Yellowstone and the surrounding mountains.
Despite its intended use, the area has seen minimal elk use – or use of any kind – because it has become overgrown with coarse vegetation, which is often unpalatable to grazing animals.
“The elk were passing right through the property,” Stam stated. “So, four or five years ago, I started talking with a neighboring rancher about his desire to fix the problem and what we could do. We were finally able to come to an agreement where we could try grazing livestock on the WGFD property on an experimental basis.”
After years of planning and discussion, yearling steers were finally turned out on the property on May 29, 2023.
“To accomplish this, we needed a large number of cattle and we needed them to be immediately available without spending a lot of money. The neighboring ranch runs yearling steers, so they were close and available,” Stam said, in explanation of why the project used yearlings and not mother cows.
He further pointed out these yearlings were not turned out and left unmanaged. In fact, the project used intensive, rotational management strategies, utilizing single wire electric fencing, all while being considerate of surrounding land use.
“We talked very specifically about when cattle would graze, how cattle would graze and how we were going to get the irrigation systems going,” said Stam. “We wanted this to be a highly-intensive managed property with a lot of opportunity for irrigation, rest and regrowth.”
“The surrounding lands are really important for recreation, and we wanted to be sensitive to the needs of the hunters, hikers, campers and fishermen who share the space as well,” he added. “Since recreation use picks up in August and September, we made sure we were out of there by then.”
Stam admitted the study is in its infancy and has ran into its fair share of challenges and learning curves. However, the results so far look positive.
“When we get a bunch of snow and the elk come down, it will be the real test. But, even in a winter like this, with an overall lack of snow, there is no doubt we’ve improved the habitat at the Sunlight Wildlife HMA through targeted livestock grazing,” he stated.
Stam also encouraged producers to think about the value of targeted livestock grazing on their own operations.
“There are some really cool things we can do with strategies like targeted grazing, supplement placement, temporary electric fencing and multi-species grazing,” he added. “There are some really neat tools we can use to be profitable and sustainable, while improving our property at the same time.”
Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.