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2005 annual progress report: Elk and bison grazing ecology in the Great Sand Dunes complex of lands

January 1, 2006

In 2000 the U.S. Congress authorized the expansion of the former Great Sand Dunes National Monument by establishing a new Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in its place, and establishing the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. The establishment of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and the new Baca National Wildlife Refuge in the San Luis Valley (SLV), Colorado was one of the most significant land conservation actions in the western U.S. in recent years. The action was a result of cooperation between the National Park Service (NPS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service (USDA-FS), and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The new national park, when fully implemented, will consist of 107,265 acres, the new national preserve 41,872 acres, and the new national wildlife refuge (USFWS lands) 92,180 acres (fig. 1). The area encompassed by this designation protects a number of natural wonders and features including a unique ecosystem of natural sand dunes, the entire watershed of surface and groundwaters that are necessary to preserve and recharge the dunes and adjacent wetlands, a unique stunted forest, and other valuable riparian vegetation communities that support a host of associated wildlife and bird species.

When the National Park was initially established, there were concerns about overconcentrations and impacts on native plant communities of the unhunted segments of a large and possibly growing elk (Cervus elaphus) population. This led to the designation of the Preserve as a compromise solution, where the elk could be harvested. The Preserve Unit, however, will not address all the ungulate management challenges. In order to reduce the current elk population, harvests of elk may need to be aggressive. But aggressive special hunts of elk to achieve population reductions can result in elk avoidance of certain areas or elk seeking refuge in areas where they cannot be hunted, while removals of whole herd segments and abandonment or alterations of migration routes can occur (Smith and Robbins, 1994; Boyce and others, 1991). Elk may seek refuge from hunting in the newly expanded Park Unit and TNC lands where they might overconcentrate and impact unique vegetation communities. In these sites of refugia, or preferred loafing sites, elk and bison could accelerate a decline in woody riparian shrubs and trees. This decline may also be due to changes in hydrology, climatic, or dunal processes, but ungulate herbivory might exacerbate the effects of those processes.

To address the questions and needs of local resource managers, a multi-agency research project was initiated in 2005 to study the ecology, forage relations, and habitat relations of elk and bison in the Great Sand Dunes–Sangre de Cristo–Baca complex of lands. Meetings and discussions of what this research should include were started in 2001 with representatives from NPS, USFWS, TNC, the Colorado Division of Wildlife (CDOW), and USDA-FS/BLM. The final study plan was successfully funded in 2004 with research scheduled to start in 2005. The research was designed to encompass three major study elements: (1) animal movements and population dynamics, (2) vegetation and nutrient effects from ungulate herbivory, and (3) development of ecological models, using empirical data collected from the first two components, that will include estimates of elk carrying capacity and management scenarios for resource managers.

Publication Year 2006
Title 2005 annual progress report: Elk and bison grazing ecology in the Great Sand Dunes complex of lands
DOI 10.3133/ofr20061267
Authors Kate A. Schoenecker, Bruce C. Lubow, Linda Zeigenfuss, Julie Mao
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2006-1267
Index ID ofr20061267
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Fort Collins Science Center