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Monitoring of vegetation response to elk population and habitat management in Rocky Mountain National Park, 2008–14

December 17, 2015

Since 2008, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado has been implementing an elk and vegetation management plan with the goal of managing elk populations and their habitats to improve the condition of key vegetation communities on elk winter range. Management actions that have been taken thus far include small reductions in the elk herd through culling of animals and temporary fencing of large areas of willow and aspen habitat to protect them from elk browsing. As part of the park’s elk and vegetation management plan (EVMP), a monitoring program was established to assess effectiveness of management actions in achieving vegetation goals. We collected data to monitor offtake (consumption) of upland herbaceous plants and willow annually from 2008 to 2014 and to assess aspen stand structure and regeneration and willow cover and height in 2013, 5 years after plan implementation. Loss of many willow and a few aspen monitoring sites to a fire in late 2012 complicated data collection and interpretation of results but will provide opportunities to observe habitat recovery following fire and in the presence and absence of elk herbivory, which will offer important insights into the use of prescribed fire as an additional management tool in these habitats.

Increases in the number of small-diameter, tree-sized (stems greater than 2.5 meter height) aspen stems were observed but only inside fences that excluded ungulates. In unfenced areas, stand structure was stagnant, with many medium- and large-diameter (older) stems and no replacement of small-diameter stems. By 2013, aspen saplings (stems less than or equal to 2.5 meter height) were recruiting on 29 percent of sampled sites, an increase from 13 percent of sites at baseline, but this was mainly due to growth inside fences. Upland herbaceous offtake dropped below baseline levels (61 percent) on both core and noncore winter range in 2010–14. Less than 10 percent of the upland areas had intense herbivory (greater than 85 percent offtake), and less than 30 percent of the landscape had offtake greater than 70 percent after 2009. Offtake levels in 2013 and 2014 indicated an increase in grazing pressure on upland sites compared to 2010–12 levels, but this change may have been in response to loss of large patches of both herbaceous and woody forage in Moraine Park following the 2012 Fern Lake Fire. Winter willow offtake remained steady from 2009 to 2014, and although there were no substantial increases in offtake, there were also no consistent declines. Winter-range willow offtake was below the baseline level of 35 percent only in 2013 and 2014. Willow heights have stayed at or above baseline levels of 0.9 meter. Average heights of willow increased compared to baseline measures within fenced habitat on the core winter range and on noncore (all unfenced) winter range. Willow cover increased at least 75 percent compared to baseline within core winter-range fenced areas and roughly 25 percent in noncore winter range. Overall, during the first 5 years of implementation, the EVMP at Rocky Mountain National Park seems to be making steady progress toward the vegetation objectives set out by the EVMP. Habitat fencing has been the most effective means of improving aspen and willow habitat conditions.

Publication Year 2015
Title Monitoring of vegetation response to elk population and habitat management in Rocky Mountain National Park, 2008–14
DOI 10.3133/ofr20151216
Authors Linda Zeigenfuss, Therese L. Johnson
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2015-1216
Index ID ofr20151216
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Fort Collins Science Center