SCI Foundation and our contributing hunter-conservationists have been active in supporting better management of western big game species, especially deer and elk, for over a decade. Elk or wapiti are among the most iconic species of the American West, although historically various subspecies ranged across much of the United States and Canada. Elk recovery from an estimated population of less than 50,000 at the beginning of the twentieth century to the current population of about 1 million animals is one of our greatest wildlife restoration success stories (and funded primarily by hunters and anglers); however, elk populations in many places across the West are threatened by factors that include growing predator populations, changing forestry and range management practices, disease, and expanding human populations. Because maintaining healthy populations of elk and other cervid species is important to sustainable use of wildlife and the North American Model of Wildlife Management, SCIF and SCI Chapters support research and management of these species.
Elk are among the most important game species for many western states and provinces. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 2016 over 700,000 hunters pursued elk in the United States (mostly in the West). The Wild Harvest Initiative estimates that hunters harvested 383,361 elk in the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons (an average of 191,000 elk per year); over the same period, they harvested 30,375 elk in Canada. Colorado leads all states in elk harvest, with approximately 45,000 harvested per year. Other western states, including Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, and New Mexico, also harvest over 10,000 elk per year. In addition to the healthy elk populations across much of the west, the efforts of hunters through state agencies and non-governmental organizations have led to the restoration of elk into their former range in many midwestern and eastern states. Small elk herds roam Arkansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Wisconsin opened elk hunting in 2018 for the first time since they were extirpated from the state in the late 1800s, joining Arkansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Tennessee as states where restoration efforts have produced huntable populations.
Despite past successes in restoring elk populations, concerns about the future of elk and elk hunting persist in many areas. The most publicized of these include the effects of wolf reintroduction into parts of the West, especially in the northern Yellowstone ecosystem in Wyoming and Montana, and the spread of chronic wasting disease in many parts of the United States. Expanding grizzly and black bear populations can also affect elk recruitment, and land use changes such as forest management, oil and gas development, and fragmentation affect elk movements and reproduction in many areas. The best way to address these issues is through science-based management based on appropriately collected data, and SCIF has worked with state agencies and researchers to collect those data. We supported investigations of the effects of road development on elk in Alberta, and the influence of wolves and mountain lions on elk populations in the Bitterroot range in Montana and in eastern Washington. The Deer-Elk Ecology Project in southern Wyoming investigated differences between mule deer and elk populations. The SCI Foundation is currently partnering on two long-term studies of iconic elk populations in Colorado and Alberta. The Gunnison Basin, CO, elk herd has been studied since 1979, and our partnership with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife began in 2014 to investigate movements and survival in this area that has seen declining elk harvest due to changing land use and human populations. The Ya Ha Tinda elk project started in 2000 and is the longest continuous elk research project in the world. The Ya Ha Tinda herd is a premier bull elk harvest area that has declined from over 700 animals to less than 400 in the last 20 years, in an area with recovering bear, wolf, and mountain lion populations. This population exhibits variable migration and movement strategies in response to land use and predator populations; these affect harvest availability and survival of both bulls and cows. Through these and other projects, SCI Foundation shows that the North American hunter is the key to successful wildlife conservation under the North American Model and that SCI and its members support science-based management of our precious wildlife resources.