Elk Occupancy Agreement Pioneers Private Conservation of Elk Habitat

News for Immediate Release
November 29, 2021
Contacts: Kat Dwyer, 406-587-9591, kdwyer@perc.org 

Paradise Valley, MT—The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), have partnered to implement the first elk occupancy agreement in the northern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  

An elk occupancy agreement is a voluntary agreement between wildlife interests and landowners to improve elk tolerance and voluntarily conserve elk habitat. In many cases, a landowner is willing to manage land for conservation but is unwilling to enter a conservation easement, which requires conservation in perpetuity. That is when an elk occupancy agreement or a shorter-term habitat lease can provide an alternative. 

In the Paradise Valley, conserving wildlife habitat is of critical importance given the increasing pressure of population growth and development. These pressures threaten the habitat integrity of large, private working lands of the region that provide essential winter range for a variety of wildlife including elk, a keystone species of the region’s ecosystem.  

PERC and GYC have partnered with a family ranch in the Paradise Valley to conserve a nearly 500-acre elk winter range area, separated from other pastures by approximately 1.25 miles of wildlife-friendly fencing. The designated acreage will exclude livestock and allow for the free movement of elk. The landowner has also agreed to conduct habitat management and enhancement activities including noxious weed treatment needed to maintain and enhance range conditions. 

This agreement emulates a similar agreement in western Wyoming where a landowner agreed to relocate cattle and physically separate elk and cattle during the winter to reduce the potential for livestock-wildlife competition and disease transmission.  

“This agreement offers a model of how private resources raised by wildlife interests can be partnered with the landowners who provide valuable wildlife habitat,” says PERC’s CEO Brian Yablonski, who worked with the landowner on the agreement. “By addressing the costs associated with providing elk habitat, we can help keep these large private landscapes intact and provide valuable winter range for the elk—accomplishing both is our goal.”

“We are proud to have developed an innovative and collaborative approach to conservation,” says Siva Sundaresan, GYC’s Conservation Director. “Our goal for this project is to conserve high-value habitat and healthy native forage for Greater Yellowstone’s wildlife while supporting local livelihoods.” 

What are the conservation benefits of this elk occupancy agreement?
  • Elk have a dedicated winter range providing essential habitat as they move along their migration corridor in Paradise Valley. 
  • As elk spend more time in the elk winter range area, neighboring farmers and ranchers will also benefit from a reduction of close cattle-to-elk contact, decreasing the potential for brucellosis spread to livestock as well as lessening the damage to fields and haystacks. 
  • The general public will benefit as the landowner sets aside an area that historically wintered elk for the benefit of elk and other wildlife. 
What is the management plan?

The landowner will keep cattle out of the fenced area unless necessary to avoid undue economic hardship or to address an excessive amount of old grass not being utilized by wildlife to decrease fire hazards. Management of the area will be for the benefit of wildlife and will include weed treatments and other identified activities. Since signing the agreement, the landowner has already deployed extensive aerial treatment for cheatgrass. The landowner will continue to use hunting and outfitting as a conservation tool. 

How will the agreement be monitored?  

The landowner will work with partner organizations to provide updates on forage conditions, weed treatments, habitat improvements, fencing, and elk and other wildlife use of the elk winter range area.  

The elk occupancy agreement will compensate the landowner for constructing the fence necessary to set winter range aside exclusively for elk. This agreement does not require government oversight; rather, it is entirely voluntary, cooperative, and privately funded through donations.


More information on the elk occupancy agreement and how this could be implemented in other communities.

 

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