Sustain Our Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Elk respond to recreation by seeking ground less traveled

Female elk with telemetry collar
A female elk wearing a telemetry collar in the Starkey Experimental Forest and Range, Oregon. USDA Forest Service photo by Leslie Naylor.

OREGON – Whether we work at a computer, play video games or watch movies, too much time glued to a screen can impact our physical and mental health. Now more than ever, time spent in nature offers a powerful antidote to this hallmark of modern American life.

Recreating on public land is an increasingly popular way to recharge. In 2016, 891 million visits were made to national forest, national parks and other federal lands. As the population increases, this number is expected to rise. This presents a conundrum for public land managers because recreation can take a toll on the land and the wildlife it supports. With growth comes change, and land managers are grappling with how to ensure that outdoor recreation is viable for people and the wildlife and natural resources they enjoy. 

That’s why findings from a study led by Mike Wisdom on the effects of different types of recreation on elk are particularly relevant. Publications based on data collected at the USDA Forest Service’s Starkey Experimental Forest and Range in La Grande, Oregon, from 2002 through 2004 show how motorized and non-motorized types of recreation––all-terrain vehicle use, mountain biking, horseback riding and hiking––affect elk. Elk, highly valued by people for wildlife viewing and hunting, as well as also being one of the largest herbivores around, play a critical role in many ecosystems of the Intermountain West.

Wisdom is a research wildlife biologist with the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest Research Station. He worked on this project closely with Bruce Johnson, a retired wildlife researcher with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Their findings provide quantitative evidence about the effects of recreation on elk. In short: Hunted populations of elk generally don’t care to be around people, especially people on ATVs and mountain bikes, even during non-hunting seasons. Click ahead to read the complete Science Findings issue.