Recent expansions by Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus elaphus) into nonforested habitats across the Intermountain West have required managers to reconsider the traditional paradigms of forage and cover as they relate to managing elk and their habitats. We examined seasonal habitat selection patterns of a hunted elk population in a nonforested high-desert region of southwestern Wyoming, USA. We used 35,246 global positioning system locations collected from 33 adult female elk to model probability of use as a function of 6 habitat variables: slope, aspect, elevation, habitat diversity, distance to shrub cover, and distance to road. We developed resource selection probability functions for individual elk, and then we averaged the coefficients to estimate population-level models for summer and winter periods. We used the population-level models to generate predictive maps by assigning pixels across the study area to 1 of 4 use categories (i.e., high, medium-high, medium-low, or low), based on quartiles of the predictions. Model coefficients and predictive maps indicated that elk selected for summer habitats characterized by higher elevations in areas of high vegetative diversity, close to shrub cover, northerly aspects, moderate slopes, and away from roads. Winter habitat selection patterns were similar, except elk shifted to areas with lower elevations and southerly aspects. We validated predictive maps by using 528 locations collected from an independent sample of radiomarked elk (n = 55) and calculating the proportion of locations that occurred in each of the 4 use categories. Together, the high- and medium-high use categories of the summer and winter predictive maps contained 92% and 74% of summer and winter elk locations, respectively. Our population-level models and associated predictive maps were successful in predicting winter and summer habitat use by elk in a nonforested environment. In the absence of forest cover, elk seemed to rely on a combination of shrubs, topography, and low human disturbance to meet their thermal and hiding cover requirements.
Additional publication details
Habitat selection of Rocky Mountain elk in a nonforested environment