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Elk response to the La Mesa fire and current status in the Jemez Mountains

January 1, 1996

Faunal remains in local archeological sites and historic information suggest that elk populations in the Jemez Mountains were low from ca. 1200 A.D. through ca. 1900 A.D., when they were extirpated from this region. Elk were reintroduced to the Jemez country in 1948 and 1964- 1965, and their population apparently grew exponentially, reaching 1000 animals in the 1970's and about 7000 by 1991.

Elk populations in Bandelier National Monument and adjoining areas increased rapidly after the 1977 La Mesa Fire. Winter use by elk in the La Mesa Fire area, centered on Bandelier, grew from about 100 animals in .1978 to around 1500 elk by 1992. The dramatic increase in the Bandelier elk herd (an annual growth rate of 21.3% and a 3.6 year population doubling time) was due in part to the creation of about 6000 hectares of grassy winter range in and around the park by the La Mesa Fire. Some of this local population increase reflects concentration of elk into this favorable wintering habitat from surrounding portions of the Jemez Mountains.

Existing data are inadequate to determine whether elk populations are still growing rapidly in the Jemez Mountains. While annual aerial surveys since 1990 in Bandelier reveal no clear population trend, a variety of observations demonstrate increasing elk use of lower elevation areas. Negative resource impacts from today's high elk populations are beginning to be widely noted across the Jemez Mountains, especially in high-use portions of the Bandelier National Monument area. Affected resources range from plant communities to soils and even archeological sites. Given the large uncertainties associated with the current data on elk populations, care should be taken to avoid further population increases until the resource impacts of this new phenomenon (large numbers of elk) can be identified, desirable population levels identified (based to a significant degree upon ecological information and resource carrying capacities, as well as social considerations), and appropriate cooperative management strategies implemented.

Publication Year 1996
Title Elk response to the La Mesa fire and current status in the Jemez Mountains
DOI 10.2737/RM-GTR-286
Authors Craig D. Allen
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Series Title General Technical Report
Series Number RM-GTR-286
Index ID 70180810
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Fort Collins Science Center