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Elk move to private land when hunting season starts, say BYU researchers

Feb 16, 2022, 3:31 PM | Updated: Feb 17, 2022, 12:54 pm
FILE: Singular bull elk peers in the direction of the camera Photo: Department of Wildlife Services...
FILE: Singular bull elk peers in the direction of the camera Photo: Department of Wildlife Services

PROVO, Utah — A new study finds that Elk in Utah may have figured out when the hunting season is, and that they move accordingly.

This information is the result of a collaborative effort between the Division of Wildlife Resources, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, Rocky Mountain Elk, and Brigham Young University. They wanted to learn why, when hunting season starts, Elk move from public lands to private lands.

“It had become a conundrum,” said Brock McMillan, a professor of wildlife ecology at BYU. “And our research indicated that, sure enough, on opening day of the hunt, elk would move off of public land and onto private land.

“On the closing day of the hunt they would move back onto public land,” McMillen said.

“It’s almost like they’re thinking, ‘Oh, all these trucks are coming, it’s opening day, better move.”

Enticing to think about, the elk movement presented a problem

While the information may be fun to think about for those who would rather aim a camera lens at wildlife than a rifle, the movement of the elk to privately owned land can be a problem for those landowners as well as the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.

Dense elk populations can cause harm to habitats across Utah. And they can disrupt farming operations by stealing food from the livestock that live on private lands. 

This potential for disruption is the reason that Utah is bound by law to manage the elk population. So, the BYU researchers also looked into the effectiveness of a program implemented in 2016 that allows private landowners to issue special hunting permits, with the aim of putting pressure on the herds to move back. 

“When they implemented the private-land-only hunt, fewer elk moved onto private lands meaning that there were move elk available on public land. And it let the state manage elk populations better,” McMillen said.

Is it instinct?

McMillen said that animals live in a landscape of fear. From human hunters and cougars, they are constantly in a fight for their lives.  

“I think that they have evolved to be wary all of the time,” he said. “And it’s not too far fetched to think that they can associate, ‘oh look, there’s a thousand trucks coming onto the mountain today, there’s maybe a hunting season open tomorrow,’ after they’ve lived through it for a few years.”

As a result of the research, Utah has permanently implemented private-land hunting permits for elk. 

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Elk move to private land when hunting season starts, say BYU researchers