Elk monitoring in Lewis and Clark National Historical Park: 2008-2012 synthesis report

Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/NCCN/NRTR--2014/837
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Maintaining elk (Cervus elaphus roosevelti) herds that frequent Lewis and Clark National Historical Park (NHP) is central to the park’s purpose of preserving the historic, cultural, scenic, and natural resources associated with the winter encampment of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Elk were critically important to the Lewis and Clark expedition in providing food and hides that sustained the expedition during the winter of 1805-06 and supplied them for their return east during 1806. Today, elk remain a key component of interpreting the Lewis and Clark story to over 200,000 park visitors each year at the Fort Clatsop visitor center.

In 2008, the US Geological Survey (USGS) began collaborating with Lewis and Clark NHP and the NPS North Coast and Cascades Network to develop a protocol for monitoring long-term changes in the magnitude and spatial patterns of elk use within and adjacent to Lewis and Clark NHP (Griffin et al. 2011). Specific objectives of the monitoring program were to measure trends in (1) relative use of the Fort Clatsop unit by elk during winter; (2) the proportion of areas where elk sign is present in the Fort Clatsop unit in winter; and (3) the frequency of elk sightings from roads in and around the Fort Clatsop unit. This report synthesizes the results of the first four years of monitoring elk distribution and use in Lewis and Clark NHP from 2008-2012. We also present data from FY2012 (Appendix 1), in lieu of an annual report for that year.

We used fecal pellet group surveys as the cornerstone for monitoring trends in both relative use of the Fort Clatsop Unit by elk and the proportion of areas where elk sign was present at the end of winter. We estimated pellet group density based on data collected from a network of fecal pellet plots distributed systematically throughout the unit. We developed a double observer sampling scheme that enabled us to estimate detection biases and improve the accuracy of pellet group density estimates. We computed the estimated detection probability for any pellet group observed; this probability was a function of the pellet group size and stage of decay, as well as lighting and vegetation conditions, and the number of observers (one or two) searching for pellets in that subplot. We then used these estimated detection probabilities to adjust the raw counts of the detected pellet groups to account for groups that likely went undetected under similar pellet and environmental conditions (each observed pellet group was weighted by the inverse of its estimated detection probability). We also used results from the late winter fecal pellet surveys to quantify the proportion of areas where elk pellets occurred (PAO), which was based on the presence of fecal pellet groups and estimation of detection biases (i.e., accounting for pellet groups that likely went undetected by both observers). In this synthesis, we report temporal trends in both pellet group density and PAO from 2008-2012, based on weighted linear regression analyses as well as spatial variation of pellet group densities over time.

We completed late winter fecal pellet surveys at 61-66 plots annually, depending on yearly variation in access. We cleared fecal pellets at survey points in late October / early November each year and returned in late February / early March to count pellet groups left by elk over the winter. The estimated probability that a pellet group was detected by any one observer during late winter was affected most by the pellet group size and was less affected by decay class and lighting conditions. Per-observer detection probabilities ranged from as low as ~10-15% for single pellets to ~85-90% for pellet groups with 50 pellets. Average pellet group density in the Fort Clatsop unit ranged annually from 0.58 (+/- 1.43 standard error [SE]) to 0.93 (+/- 2.25 SE) pellet groups per 3-m radius subplot. Pellet group density declined over time, at approximately 8.8% per year (+/- 2.5% SE), but that slope was not statistically distinguishable from zero (2- tailed P=0.16). Following correction for detection biases, the proportion of surveyed points used by elk (i.e., PAO) ranged from 0.44 (+/- 0.07 SE) to 0.53 (+/- 0.07 SE) during the 4 winters. The estimated proportion of areas where elk pellets occurred (PAO) declined at a rate of 2.6% per year (+/- 1.2% per year SE), but that trend also was not statistically distinguishable from zero (2- tailed P=0.17). Statistical significance of a measure’s trend depends on both the magnitude (i.e., slope) of the observed trend and the number of years the trend continues in the same increasing or decreasing direction. Through simulation modeling we determined how many additional years of surveys would be required to reveal a statistically significant trend, based on the same trends in pellet group density and PAO, and associated variation, observed from 2009-2012. Assuming the same trends persist in the future, simulations indicated that there is a 70% probability that a statistically significant trend would be detected after two more years of conducting pellet group surveys.

Relative use by elk during winter, as indexed by elk pellet group density, was generally greatest in the southeast region of the Fort Clatsop unit in or near the large freshwater marsh at the mouth of Colewort Creek and adjacent upland areas. Pellet group density was also higher than average in the north-central forested area, not far from a privately-owned pasture north of the park boundary. This spatial pattern in pellet group densities across the Fort Clatsop unit was consistent across all four years, although specific pellet group densities varied from year to year. Pellet group density declined significantly over time at two points in the southeast of the Fort Clatsop unit, even though pellet group density at those points remained higher than the unit average. Pellet group density increased significantly over time at one point in the north-central region, and at one point in the south-central region of the unit, indicating a slight shift in the distribution of elk use within the Fort Clatsop Unit over the four years.

As an index of visitors’ opportunities to see elk in and around the Fort Clatsop Unit, we conducted replicated roadside elk surveys 3-5 times monthly during February, April, June, August, October and December 2008-2012. During each morning of survey, we searched for elk along four routes that totaled 32 km. We examined bimonthly trends in the numbers of elk groups seen, the total number of elk seen, and the observed composition ratios for those six months of the year. The average number of elk groups seen per survey ranged from 0.75 (+/- 0.32 SE) during February to a peak of 1.95 (+/- 0.36 SE) during June. Despite this seasonal variation in numbers of elk groups seen, the average total number of elk seen per morning was less variable. The average ratios of antlered elk to antlerless adult elk (i.e., bulls:cows) and calves to antlerless adult elk (i.e. calves:cows) varied seasonally, with the highest of both average ratios observed in August. We detected no significant trends in the average number of elk groups and total numbers of elk seen per survey from 2008-2012. Similarly, ratios of calves and antlered elk per antlerless elk did not differ over time.

Elk groups were frequently seen from January to August in the southeast region of the Fort Clatsop unit, in the vicinity of Colewort Creek. Outside of NPS lands, we observed elk most frequently in open areas near the Astoria regional airport, in the pastures and forests immediately north of the Fort Clatsop unit and, prior to the construction of a residential development, in a pasture northwest of the Fort Clatsop unit.

Elk monitoring at Lewis and Clark NHP is still in its initial years and additional monitoring will be required to verify trends that appear to be emerging. For example, the initial monitoring suggested incipient declining trends in both pellet group density and proportion of plots with pellets present, as well as, potentially, a small shift in elk distribution away from a new trail that was recently constructed in the southeast portion of the Fort Clatsop unit. Continued monitoring will aid in determining whether this local change in distribution persists (or, alternatively, resulted from short-term random variation), and whether there will be any positive or negative effect in the northern portion of the unit where a new trail has been constructed. High variability in road counts prevented our ability to find any clear trend in numbers or composition of elk observed in and near Fort Clatsop, but changes in the patterns of observations of elk from roadways suggest that residential development outside the park has reduced the available habitat for elk in some of the areas surveyed, and may have affected spatial use patterns of elk adjacent to some areas of the park. In addition to monitoring future effects of land use changes outside the park, continued monitoring may also prove useful for assessing elk responses to natural succession in forests disturbed by windthrow in December 2007 and to NPS vegetation management activities such as variable density thinning in the forest, trail development, and restoration at Otter Point tidal area and Colewort Creek Slough.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Title Elk monitoring in Lewis and Clark National Historical Park: 2008-2012 synthesis report
Series title Natural Resource Technical Report
Series number NPS/NCCN/NRTR--2014/837
Year Published 2014
Language English
Publisher National Park Service
Contributing office(s) Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center
Description xii, 56 p.
Time Range Start 2008-01-01
Time Range End 2012-12-31
Country United States
State Oregon;Washington
Other Geospatial Lewis And Clark National Historical Park
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details