An elk on the move; image captured by a remote trail camera. Elk respond to the abundance of green forage that appears after prescribed fire, selecting burned sites during spring and early summer for more than a decade later. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The benefits of prescribed fire can go beyond mitigating fire risk. In fact, prescribed fires can support wildlife by creating new habitat or improving existing habitat. In the two to five years following a prescribed fire, burned areas often sustain more grasses and forbs, which offer abundant food for large herbivores like elk and their offspring. Until recently, however, the long-term effects of prescribed fire on elk habitat were largely unknown.
Station research wildlife biologists Mary Rowland and Michael Wisdom worked with their colleagues at Oregon State University, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the University of Idaho to track the long-term impacts of prescribed fire on elk habitat selection at the Starkey Experimental Forest and Range. They used 22 years of telemetry data from female elk to track their response to burned areas at multiple time scales: day vs. night, across seasons, and across years.
They found that during the spring and summer, elk use of the burned areas far exceeded their use before prescribed fire treatments were applied. Elk selected adjacent unburned areas more in late summer and fall, seasons of frequent drought in this region, likely to take advantage of the better forage in sites with denser canopy cover. This habitat selection lasted for up to 14 years after the prescribed burning. Researchers didn’t know how long elk would be attracted to the burned areas because there was no comparable long-term data available. But, these results demonstrated that treatments applied in only one year can benefit elk for many years.
Because elk habitat selection is influenced by the season, a mosaic of burned and unburned areas on the landscape may be a key habitat component for elk populations in the western United States. Maintaining a diverse mix of habitats for elk throughout the year will become increasingly important as climate change influences the availability of nutritious forage for elk during summer, a time when the energy demands of female elk with nursing calves are especially high.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is using these findings to inform policy addressing how millions of dollars of cost-share grants with federal, state, and private partners are allocated for prescribed burn projects to enhance wildlife habitat. Resource managers and policymakers in the West can use these findings to plan prescribed burns that simultaneously reduce fire risk and enhance elk habitat.