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PROVO — Elk hunting is immensely popular in Utah, so popular that it took fewer than 10 hours for all 17,500 of Utah's elk hunting permits to be scooped up last season.
But while Utahns know when it's hunting season through a set calendar, a recent study suggests Utah elk also seem to know when it's hunting season — and where to go to seek refuge until it's over.
The study, published last month in the Journal of Wildlife Management, finds elk reduced their use of public lands by 30% in middle of rifle season. The elk instead moved to private land, where it used to be illegal to hunt and where hunters currently need to have written permission from landowners to hunt. The herd returned to public land almost immediately after a season ended.
"It's crazy; on the opening day of the hunt, they move, and on the closing day they move back. It's almost like they're thinking, 'Oh, all these trucks are coming, it's opening day, better move,'" BYU professor Brock McMillan, the study's senior author, said in a news release Wednesday.
The findings are based on the patterns of 445 elk with tracking collars that biologists put on the animals after they were captured along the Wasatch range. The collar provided researchers coordinate information every 13 hours, which were studied between 2015 and 2017.
Researchers used the coordinates to figure out whether elk were on public or private land at any given time. They found a "distinct" correlation in elk distributions on public land at the start and end of hunting season, dropping over 30% by the middle of the rifle season.
Their findings explained why elk harvest rates were so low when private-land hunting wasn't allowed in 2015. There were 12,857 public land hunters in 2015 who bagged a total of 3,833 elk — a less than 30% success rate. Only 29% of tracked elk were on public land during the hunt.
Based on their findings and previous research, the study authors wrote that it appears "elk are acutely aware of changes in the spatial and temporal nature of hunting." Their data suggests elk respond to hunting pressures, causing them to move around.
The study offers a win for the tricky elk that elude the hunters, but that's about it.
Researchers note in the study that since Utah is wolf-free, humans are "an important predator" in the population control of elk. They say dense elk populations can be harmful to wildlife habitats across Utah, even going as far as hampering farm operations because they can consume food on private lands that is set aside for livestock.
It's also not unique to Utah. Elk overpopulation has the potential to disrupt entire ecosystems, Colorado Encyclopedia points out.
At the same time elk have dodged hunters, they haven't been as affected by drought conditions as deer in recent years. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources biologists say there was a potential 10% decline in Utah's deer population last year as a result of drying conditions, but elk populations "remain stable with no large declines," based on population counts in December.
All of this is why researchers suggest more work is needed to control populations of the elk species. And since elk are moving to private land during the hunting season, BYU professor Randy Larsen, a co-author, explains that Utah wildlife managers end up getting heat from both sides of the spectrum when it offers elk hunting.
"One side says there are not enough elk to hunt — 'Why are you issuing permits?' while private owners are saying, 'The elk are eating us out of house and home,'" he said in a statement.
The researchers conclude the paper by recommending private land hunting permits to get more elk on public lands, which can then boost the "likelihood of harvest to meet desired population objectives."
When private land permits were issued in Utah in 2016, researchers noticed that the tracked elk used more public land after private land permits were issued. The figure among tracked elk rose from 29% in 2015 to 41% in 2016 and 42% in 2017.
The hunting success rates also improved. During that first year of private land permits, there were 7,554 hunters who harvested 2,462 elk on public land, a 32.6% success rate. That still wasn't as high as the private land rate that year, which was about 61% among 1,643 private land hunters.
A pair of biologists with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources are listed as co-authors of the study, and the research is the reason that private land hunting permits are now a permanent fixture in Utah.
Maksim Sergeyev, a former BYU master's student who is currently a doctoral candidate at Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University-Kingsville, and the study's lead author, said Wednesday that the data shows private land permits are an effective tool in keeping elk populations in check.
Said Sergeyev: "Allowing private land elk hunting in collaboration with private landowners has helped Utah keep these elk populations in balance with their habitat."