The USGS Investigates Elk

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

Elk are one of the largest of the “Cervidae”, the deer family, and are one of North America’s largest mammals. Cows weight about 225 kg. (500 pounds) while bulls weigh about 320 kg (700 pounds). They are magnificent animals in the wild, and in addition they have another very important feature. They are … well … umm … no socially acceptable way to say this in a world containing vegevores but to say that elk are delicious, as many wolves or mountain lions can testify. As can I. This has not worked to their historical advantage.

Originally there were elk over much of the US. However, because of the “delicious” factor, many of the species of elk were turned into elkburger by short-sighted humans of the melanin-deficient variety. The situation in the southwestern state of Arizona is fairly typical. There, to use the lovely language of biologists, the local elk species, Merriam’s Elk, was “extirpated” just prior to 1900.

Arizona is usually thought of as a hot desert state. But the northern part of the Arizona is mountainous. I rode a freight train through northern Arizona in winter one time, and I hope to never be that cold again in my life. But the elk didn’t mind the cold, at least until we ate them all.

However, everything is not lost, humans can also repair mistakes or at least ameliorate their effects. Groups of a different species of elk were imported from Yellowstone Park from about 1910 to 1930. At first the herds were small, but nature is nothing if not fecund, and we’ve killed a lot of the elk’s natural predators (bear, wolf, mountain lion), so the main problem now is to keep the herd size down. And it is not an insignificant problem. The size of the elk herds is putting pressure on a variety of resources, both natural and human, all over the state. The Arizona Department of Game and Fish (AZDFG) has an elk management plan that lays out all that it is doing to keep the elk numbers down, and they have a big job on their hands. Their methods include regular hunting seasons; special hunting seasons; hunting seasons designed to drive elk out of a specific area; “antlerless” hunts for female elk; special permits for farmers to shoot elk that are eating their crops; hunts designed to preserve winter forage for the winter, and the like.

This is a recurring problem with large herbivores all over the planet, particularly where we’ve killed the large carnivores. There’s not a lot of food in your average blade of grass. A big animal like an elk has to eat lots and lots of vegetation just to stay alive, and even more to gain weight. And this, of course, means that wherever elk go, they will change the local ecology big-time. A herd of elk is natures mowing machine, only they’ll also mow down small trees.

Why is all of this of interest to climate science?

Figure 1. Snowfall in Flagstaff, Arizona. Pale red squares show the 17-year centered Gaussian average of the data. The airport gets more snow than the town, and as a result I have adjusted the town data so that their averages agree during the period of overlap. As you can see the match is good. The black bar shows the 95%CI for the error of the Gaussian average at the boundary of the dataset. DATA SOURCES: “History of Flagstaff,   Flagstaff Airport  Town Adjusted 

Well, some University of Montana folks, along with the US Geological Survey, have just published a paper called “Climate impacts on bird and plant communities from altered animal–plant interactions”, by Thomas E. Martin and John L. Maron, paywalled of course. (“Impacts2011). The authors make the  claim that human-caused climate change in the form of reduced snowfall around Flagstaff and in other mountain areas of Arizona is allowing the elk population to graze higher in the mountains in winter, and as a result the local ecology is changing.

This, of course, brings up several related questions:

1. Does an elk eat in the woods?

2. Has the snowfall in the Arizona mountains gone down lately?

3. Are there other factors that might push elk up into the mountains?

4. What other parts of Arizona are the elk moving into?

Question 1. Yes, elk eat in the woods, a herd of elk is a tree-trimming and mowing machine par excellence. But as is far too common in these kinds of studies, the authors can’t resist gilding the lily. Here are their photos showing what the elk can do …

Figure 2. ORIGINAL CAPTION e,f, Photos showing the decline in understory plant density in the same area of a study drainage from May 1985 (e) to May 2011 (f).

Now, I’ll buy that elk can do that kind of damage, because elk do eat in the woods, and they eat most everything. But I won’t buy that those photos are taken from the same location. They are careful to say that they are in the “same area”, but they are presented as a “before and after” combination, when they are nothing of the sort. For all I know, photo “f” may have looked like that for the last quarter century. A small point, I know, but that kind of thing rubs me the wrong way.

In any case, it is obvious to anyone who has been around them that elk eat in the woods, that they eat a lot, and that trees and their inhabitants suffer as a result. Bad elk, buncha cervine eco-criminals. Or as the authors say:

We excluded elk from one of two paired snowmelt drainages (10 ha per drainage), and replicated this paired experiment across three distant canyons. Over six years, we reversed multi-decade declines in plant and bird populations by experimentally inhibiting heavy winter herbivory associated with declining snowfall. Moreover, predation rates on songbird nests decreased in exclosures, despite higher abundances of nest predators, demonstrating the over-riding importance of habitat quality to avian recruitment.

So the authors have proven that yes, elk eat in the woods, and yes, they eat trees and understory of all kinds, and yes, when the elk do that, songbirds suffer. I would not have thought that it would take a scientific study to establish that, but I suppose it is good that they did. I would note in passing that one man’s ceiling is another mans floor, and if songbirds suffer, surely some other creature gains from having cleared out understory, and that includes fire protection for all the forest animals … but I digress. According to AGw supporters, climate change can only bring negative outcomes and no benefits, it is well known.

Regarding the second question, I see no evidence of any unusual decrease in snowfall. They do a typical AGW thing in Impacts2011, in their Figure (1a, not shown) they show only the snowfall from 1985 onwards. As you can see in Figure 1, 1985 was somewhere near the peak of the recorded historical swings. Overall, there is no such sign of decline in snowfall. There is a slight upward trend in the Flagstaff snowfall since 1948, but the trend is not statistically significant, nor is the level of modern snowfall historically unusual.

In addition, they provide absolutely no citation for their snowfall numbers. The closest that they come is when they say:

Snowfall at our study area has declined over the past 25 years (Fig. 1a), typical of what has occurred across western North America and other mountain regions of the world 1,7,8.

Reference 1 is the IPCC Bible, except of course they have neglected to give us the chapter and verse of the sermon. Heck, they don’t even say which volume contains the information, whether it is Working Group I, II, or III.

They are saying that supporting evidence for their claim is somewhere in the thousands and thousand of pages of the AR4 report somewhere, and by gosh, it is the reader’s responsibility to ferret it out. I despise this type of citation, and it is all too common in climate science. If I had tried citing a thousand page document with no page numbers in high school, much less college, my teachers would have had me for breakfast. Yet the authors are college professors, and the reviewers stay schtumm and don’t inquire too closely into the antecedents of the “facts” inhabiting the report.

The only good news? If someone does that, if someone puts the entire IPCC report as the very first citation for their paper without a page citation, you can rest assured that they are activists, not scientists.

Reference 7 for declining snowfall is “Effects of temperature and precipitation variability on snowpack trends in the western United States“.  You’d think with a title like that they might actually look at the snowpack trends. Instead, as the Abstract to that paper says:

In this study, the linear trends in 1 April SWE [snow water equivalent -w.] over the western United States are examined, as simulated by the Variable Infiltration Capacity hydrologic model implemented at 1/8° latitude–longitude spatial resolution, and driven by a carefully quality controlled gridded daily precipitation and temperature dataset for the period 1915–2003.

Here’s what they did. They took some real snowfall and temperature data. Then they “gridded” it, that is to say averaged it by gridcells on the map. Then they adjusted the temperatures for altitude using the moist adiabatic lapse rate. Oh, they also adjusted the precipitation based on the topography. They do not say whether they have infilled cells which contain no data or how they handle missing data

Then they’ve used that averaged, adiabatically compensated, gridded, topographically adjusted, and perhaps infilled dataset to drive a model, a model which outputs using a much smaller grid than the input data, a grid of about ten miles on a side. The paper is about the results of that model.

Sorry, not impressed. I’ve written too many computer programs, I have a good idea of the errors inherent in that process.

Reference 8 for decreasing snowpacks is Attribution of Declining Western U.S. Snowpack to Human Effects It was written in 2008, yet it only uses data up to 1999. This is a huge red flag for me. The reason, in this case, is that it is the usual attempt to have climate models place the blame on humans, and the model runs end in 1999. That’s convenient for alarmism, it turns out, since snowfalls have increased in the last decade. My favorite line from that one is from the abstract, viz:

Estimates of natural internal climate variability are obtained from 1600 years of two control simulations performed with fully coupled ocean–atmosphere climate models.

I had to rub my eyes at that one, natural variability obtained from models?? I looked further, to find that’s what they mean:

… Only if changes are both outside the likely range expected due to natural climate variability and consistent with the changes ex- pected due to anthropogenic forcing can it be concluded that human activity has a role in reducing winter snowpack.

We use 1600 years of control run data from fully coupled global general circulation climate models (GCMs) to provide estimates of natural internal variability

And how do they determine the “human fingerprint”? More computer runs, this time with GHGs and aerosol and the whole Cirque Du Soleil. They go on to explain that step.

Multiple ensemble members of two GCMs run with estimated historical changes in well-mixed GHGs, aerosols, and ozone supply the expected response of snowpack to these anthropogenic forcings. We statistically downscale the GCM results to 1⁄8° resolution then use the downscaled fields as input to a fine-resolution hydrological model. The hydrological model calculates the SWE values as well as soil moisture, runoff, and other variables in the hydrologic water balance used in companion work

So first they are using climate model control simulation runs to give an estimate of “natural” internal climate variability, so they can rule out natural fluctuations as a cause of the change in snowfall … these guys would be hilarious if it didn’t cost us so much time and money to fight this nonsense.

Then they compare that “natural variability” to “anthropogenic” climate model runs with greenhouse gases and aerosols and the lot. To do that, they “downsize” the results of the climate models. These are typically on 5° grids or so, pretty large. They divide each gridcell into no less than a hundred little “mini-gridcells”, and “constrain” the numbers in the downsizing process by comparing them to local observational data. (As far as I know, there is no evidence that this process does better than chance regarding preciptation … but I suppose that doesn’t matter in any case, because in any case the GCMs being downsized are known to do no better than chance on precipitation.

Those thousands of mini-gridcells are then used as input to yet another model. This final model calculates the snowfall that allegedly results from the human influence … anyone care to give me some serious error estimates for that process?

Again, not impressed by the putative fingerprints. It’s models all the way down. Reference 8 is a joke, a downsizing of models known not to work for precipitation.

So their evidence of declining snowfall is both weak and out of date, as snowfalls have generally increased in the western US in the last decade. In the Flagstaff record there is nothing to suggest a human influence on the snowfall. And more to the point, current Flagstaff snowfalls are well within historical norms. During the twenty year period between the world wars, the snowfall was quite low compared to the period they studied. Makes one wonder what the elk were up to then …

Regarding the third question, of what else might push elk up into the mountains … well, duh, population pressure. This pressure comes from two sources—the elk population numbers, and the human population numbers, particularly the number of hunters. There are some issues of interest there. One is that this is not the historical elk population, which had its winter and summer ranges figured out for thousands of years. These are modern transplants whose numbers are increasing, figuring out how to survive in a plotted, parceled, complex ecoscape of natural and human forces. Are we surprised that some group of them might take to eating places they haven’t eaten before?

A second issue is that we have replaced their historical predators with human predators. One of the largest differences between the types of predation is that natural predators preferentially take the aged, the young, and the weak. Human predation preferentially takes adult males. This changes the social structure of the animals. Another difference in predation is where we hunt. Wolves hunt where they live. Humans hunt where we can get to easily, because packing out a big elk, that’s a quarter ton of meat to shlep out of the forest. So we drive the elk into and out of different areas than did the other predators. Again, should we be surprised that they are pushing up into the area of the study?

Finally, question 4. What other areas are they going into? Here, it gets interesting. The AZDFG document cited earlier says:

History and Background:

Elk did not historically occur in southeastern Arizona and are an unplanned addition to the native wildlife found there. Early elk sources such as Murie’s 1951 “Elk of North America” correctly noted that elk were not native to southeastern Arizona. However, later sources (Bryant and Maser 1982 – Elk of North America) erroneously extended the historic range of elk far in to Mexico based on unsubstantiated rumors, a report of a pictograph, and a report by Edgar Mearns’ camp cook of 2 “large deer” crossing the border into Mexico. Archaeological evidence fails to provide any evidence elk were ever in Region 5 in historic times. No evidence exists of elk remains in the fauna lists at Native American sites in southeastern Arizona.

Another large herbivore grazing on the region’s arid and fragile desert ecosystems would probably come to the detriment of other native wildlife. Elk currently occur in Units 28, 31, and 32 and can live quite well among mesquite and prickly pear. There is no doubt they would become established in many areas of southeastern Arizona and have the potential to greatly impact other native wildlife such as desert mule deer, pronghorn, and many grassland and riparian obligate species.

So in addition to elk moving up into the mountains, they are also pushing out into the desert areas.

I can hardly wait for the next study by the USGS and the University of Montana, the new study that conclusively proves that elk are moving into the desert as a result of climate change …

My best to everyone,

w.

[PS—dang science takes a while, as I was researching and writing this Anthony posted about the study here … curse you, masked man!]

Advertisements

  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of
Babsy

Smothered elk steak! YUM-MEE!

Luther Wu

“Elk… can live quite well among mesquite and prickly pear.”
_________________________
Mequite- broused braised elk.
Smoker not required.

ghl

Hi Willis, nice article.
Another question occurs to me, did they open the exclosures spring to autumn, or did they stop summer grazing as well? Sorry if it is obvious.

Sean Peake

It’s good to see some of the points I raised in an earlier post mentioned and expanded upon by Willis. (“I am so smart… S-M-R-T”, h/t Homer Simpson) As for these critters being delicious, fur traders in Canada we not as enthusiastic. The subject of my two books on the Fur Trade in Canada was David Thompson, and he found elk fat melted in the pan for cooking was unpalatable because it stuck to the teeth as it cooled. Bison were the animals of choice, and i fact were the fuel for the fur trade.

Jeff in Calgary

Very well written.
I hate the “appeal to authority” arguments, especialy when use as a principal assumption that the whole paper is bassed upon. “Since we all know that the snow pack is decreasing due to AGW…” Really? Better check your premise! All your models may show that, but reality shows different.
Believing that models are reality is kind of like believing Reality TV is reality.

Impressive critique, Mr. E. There is often a “Hound of the Baskervilles” quality in your analysis by not only observing what is before you, but making careful remarks about what should be there but is missing — the dog that didn’t’ bark.

Damage6

Only disagree with one minor little point. There IS a socially acceptable way to say that Elk taste good. It’s “Elk are delicious” Especially wrapped in bacon and braised with mushrooms and red wine sauce. If the vegans don’t like it tough. I always chaps my hide to see this attitude that the vast majority of people who eat meat should somehow feel the need to be embarrassed to the tiny, tiny minority of those who don’t. Those canine teeth and binocular vision didn’t evolve by accident.

Bring back the wolves!

Lew Skannen

“elk were turned into elkburger by short-sighted humans of the melanin-deficient variety.”
Is there any evidence that elk meat can act as a cure for sunburn or myopia?
I can just imagine what the headlines will be when a hybrid-shark journalist gets hold of this….

Fred Allen

Wow! The logic is stunning. Do the researchers mean to say that if I put a fence around my vegie garden and keep the deer out, the vegies have a better chance of growing to maturity? Can I extrapolate elk to deer and reach this conclusion?

Matt

The fastest way to increase the number of elk is to convince enough people that they can profit from elk being delicious. The large mammals with the highest populations world wide are the ones we eat the most of, cattle and pigs.

John Cunningham

Hey, what’s with knocking elk as food? if field-dressed properly, and well-prepared, elk is as good as caribou! Alaska has some elk herds introduced in the 20th century, they are few enough in number that only permit hunts are allowed.

Al Gored

Wilis,
“A second issue is that we have replaced their historical predators with human predators.”
This is true now, sort of, except where wolves have now been reintroduced.
But to provide the full historical context of this story, the primary apex predators we replaced were other human predators, Native North Americans.
Thus this only applies, sort of, to the modern era: “One of the largest differences between the types of predation is that natural predators preferentially take the aged, the young, and the weak. Human predation preferentially takes adult males.”
Native North American hunters targeted the females because they were the best food.
Moreover, wolves target bull elk after the rut when they are weakened by all that rutting, harem herding, and no eating. This is compounded by the fact that they cannot stay in the safety of large herds like cow elk because their nutritional needs are different, particularly after the rut, so they are usually found alone or in small groups.
This lack of historical context is the biggest problem with all the bogus studies like this, including the assessments of so called ‘natural’ landscapes and wildlife populations. For the last 12,000 years the ‘natural ecosystem’ was dominated by Native people and shaped by their activities, most notably hunting and burning – and the latter is critical to understanding vegetation changes.
You might want to look at this case study of Yellowstone which touches on everything covered by this paper:
http://www.gardnerfiles.com/Yellowstones%20Natural%20Regulations%20Policy%2021-a.pdf
It was done before the wolf reintroduction there but covers the basics. You might also want to google the author – Dr. Charles E. Kay – or better yet talk to him because he has been researching this for decades and is an absolute wealth of knowledge and new perspectives. The greenies have got him removed from US Senate hearings, done everything imaginable to bury his work and his books, and recently attempted to get him fired from his job.
He did his PhD on Yellowstone, looking first at aspens, and everything led from there. Unfortunately, Yellowstone has been capital of politicized junk science since the 1960s so his work was not exactly welcomed there. The first rule of the postnormal pseudoscience called ‘Conservation Biology’ is to ignore and/or revise history to maintain the myth of the ‘pristine wilderness’ and Native people living in harmony with nature.
Of course I know you prefer to ignore comments from people using pseudonyms but you really ought not ignore this one. You could really learn a lot by following this lead.

Douglas DC

I have Rocky Mountain Elk grazing on the Hill above me. Occasionally a big bull comes down into town.This is La Grande, Or. in the north east of the state. We had big herds if Roosevelt
elk graze and lay on our lawns in Coos Bay. though they did get onto the street like the blacktail
Deer did..
Not at all surprising that Elk are that adaptable…
Just had a tender elk steak last week…

The following statement in the article is wrong:
Originally there were elk over much of the US.
To be fair to the author, I guess it all depends on the meaning of the word “originally”. The fact is Elk are an Asian import, (migrating here over Beringia) and their populations have been subject to human predation for at least 13,500 years.
There is no “normal” state of nature. All the theorizing about changes in Elk populations due to climate, without any consideration of their predators, is eco-babble nonsense.
Here’s a truism you can take to the bank: population dynamics in Elk are governed by predator/prey relationships — not habitat, not climate, not magic crystals, not pies in the sky. Please let’s have some real science and evade the eco-babble trap.

Lawrie Ayres

In Australia the aborigines killed off our large herbivores 10000 years or so ago. Since then they relied on seasonal burning to encourage new growth for food species, ie. kangaroo. Now that the aborigines have retired to the cities and much of the bush is controlled by a PC National Parks and Wildlife Service ( National Sparks and Wildfires in the vernacular) who don’t do clearing or burning nor do they allow cattle or camels into the parks neither so every few summers the parks burn to the bare earth with consequential loss of habitat and life. If only we had a few million elk and if they did the (f) treatment above we would have much nicer parks and then people might even visit them.

u.k.(us)

Elk are big.
Living as I do in Elk Grove Village, Illinois. Where a herd of elk is restrained by fences in the local forest preserve, I reiterate, elk are big.
It would appear that during the rut (November), if one stomps his foot he may cause a bull elk to saunter over and rub his antlers along the chain-link fence, and upon such close inspection of the size of said elk, it could easily knock down said fence. If only they knew 🙂
That said, I look forward to reading Willis’s post.

philincalifornia

I don’t want to get you into trouble with the law Willis, so keep that gun in the closet would you, but there’s a large herd of Tule Elk pretty close to where you live. Grizzly Island – the other side of Mount Diablo. You have to approach it from the north via I80. Well worth the trip.
http://baynature.org/places/grizzly-island-wildlife-area

“The authors, USGS Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit scientist Thomas Martin and University of Montana scientist John Maron, mimicked the effects of more snow on limiting the ability of elk to browse on plants by excluding the animals from large, fenced areas. They compared bird and plant communities in these exclusion areas with nearby similar areas where elk had access, and found that, over the six years of the study, multi-decadal declines in plant and songbird populations were reversed in the areas where elk were prohibited from browsing.”
That’s startling – if elk are prevented from eating plants, the plants aren’t eaten. They’ll be telling us net that if felling of trees is stopped, the trees continue to grow.You learn something new every day.

Alan Watt

Willis says:
… that’s a quarter ton of meat to shlep out of the forest.

I was all set to noodge you gently about the proper spelling of “schlep”, but I thought I should verify my research first. I found from here:

Spelling of some of these Yiddish language words may be variable (for example, schlep is also seen as shlep, schnoz as shnozz, and so on).

but maybe this could just be spellling revisionists taking over Wikipedia pages.
This is indeed a worrisome development. Clearly we need to do some follow-up studies to determine whether climate change is affecting the taste of the elk. We need a large sample size to be valid. We’d also have to see whether the deteriorating taste of elk fillet is possibly balanced by an improving taste in elk roast. There are so many things we don’t know about the changing climate effects on elk; munch study is required.
Anyone in a position to apply for a grant?

Steve McIntyre

The introduction of sheep in the southwest in the 1800s had a drmatic impact on understory of the same sort – see refs in McIntyre and McKitrick (E&E 2005),

Sean Peake

Mike D., the actual name is wapiti. Elk is used as a common name just as buffalo is used for bison. And for your viewing pleasure, I highly recommend you have a look at A Guy on a Buffalo series: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iJ4T9CQA0UM

Pat Moffitt

So do the song birds have an environmental justice suit against the elk?
If elk are in any way like whitetail then their browsing habits (what they eat) can change over time. Whitetails in my area 20 years ago NEVER ate holly -now its like candy to them. Same for daylillies. (Only 2 plants are 100% safe– daffodils and boxwoods) Adding more complexity to ascribing climate for browsing patterns.

TedK

Um, just how did those geniuses determine that elk did all of that browsing? Did they get dental prints or scraped elk snot off of the leaves for DNA testing?
Sorry Willis, you did such an excellent review that I have no intentions of reading a document that will only make me angry. So I am not going to read the document to figure how they are absolutely certain that elk overbrowsed that plot.
But that over-browsed picture just gets to me. Deer can eat anything up to what height they can reach when standing on their rear legs, which is roughly six feet for eastern whitetail (and is why my peach and appletrees are pruned to above six feet). I’d assume hungry mule or black tail deer will at least reach that height. I’d also assume that elk could reach a fair bit higher. Now, there are no markers to allow us to determine height in that picture, but it sure looks like that given the camera angle and distance none of those trees are denuded above 4-5 feet.
Also, the only other place I’ve seen so completely denuded up to a certain height is where goats are kept. I’ve never seen deer do such a complete clearing of all greenery up to a certain height, unless the deer have no other recourse (penned, winter snowpack trapping them, etc.). Deer for all of their incredible appetite for our favorite plants are actually choosy about what they eat and rarely eat a lot in one spot. They browse and move on; deer, and especially elk, move to where there is easier food, even if it is in your backyard.
Given the lack of facts, I suspect that overbrowsed picture came from a pen, likely where goats are kept.

Steve Keohane

1. Does an elk eat in the woods? Up here in far northeastern Arizona, also referred to as western Colorado, we have lots of woodlands near open fields/pastures that look just like the ‘after’ picture you show. And lots of yummy elk. Just walking around they are going to clear the lower branches, and they are probably not shy about rubbing an itchy shoulder on a tree trunk either. Cattle cause the same symptoms on trees as well. Surely they don’t graze cattle in the sage brush and pear cactus as they do here. I’ve seen migrating herds of elk over a mile long and as far across as one can see. A one night stay in a high desert area with a herd that size could have effects that last over a year.

Their paper, hidden behind a paywall, can not be considered as science, as it is not available to the people that paid for It.
I agree with TedK, that set of pictures look to be a “cherry pick” propaganda set. pg

Eunice Farmilant

I live in Montana near the Lolo National Forest (the Clark Fork River is stone’s throw from my house) and when I ventured eight miles or so up the forest road this past summer for horsetail, yarrow and the like, I came across a delightful area of glorious old cottonwood trees, a delicate little stream and a rich lush undergrowth. A few weeks later, looking for hawthorn and wild rosehips, I returned..to find the area devastated. The shrubs had been trampled to death, the beautiful little stream turned into a muddy swamp and all the herbs were destroyed. The culprit? A herd of twenty or so cows, plundering the forest with great elan. Their huge cow piles littered the road.
I will take the damage of elk any day over the sheer destruction of a herd of cows. The elk leave a much smaller footprint in the woods, believe me. And their calling cards don’t stick to your boots like fresh cow poop!!

Reblogged this on pindanpost.

Jenn Oates

I live in a city named Elk Grove, but there are no elk here, sadly, not for a very long time, probably because most of their groves have been paved over. Talk about thinning the herd (and no lie, our rival football team is the Thundering Herd).
I’m all in favor of reintroducing Elk and other tasty animals to places where they no longer roam, let them get established, and then set the predators on them…fully licensed, of course. I see that as a win-win for those species. Not for the unfortunate individuals which end up on Willis’ dinner plate, but the species overall, and let the climate chips fall where they may.

Al Gored

Sean Peake says:
January 12, 2012 at 8:53 pm
“Mike D., the actual name is wapiti. Elk is used as a common name just as buffalo is used for bison.”
First, I would like to congratulate you on your recent book(s), which is the most comprehensive and detailed account of the fur trade explorer David Thompson ever done. Just recently got them and I am totally impressed.
Second, if we really want to put a proper term to ‘elk,’ the North American ones are now classified as subspecies of the Eurasian red deer. In Europe they call moose ‘elk.’

Arizona CJ

I live in Northern Arizona, and while I think Willis’s article is excellent, I’d like to add a few observations:
#1, Fire. We have had massive fires in recent years (largely a result of diminished logging and successful fire fighting, resulting in fuel buildup). To me, that “before and after” pic looks as if the after one was taken after a ground fire.
#2, we have loads of large mule deer, with dietary habits very similar to Elk.
#3: Snowfall. I saw none used here by Willis, but I’d like to mention that one should be VERY wary of published anecdotal reports, for they are notoriously false in this area. The way it works is that if we have, say, a winter with many light snowfalls (say, a foot or so per storm) most people here consider it a “light” winter for snowfall. However, if we get walloped with a couple of heavy snows (4 feet or so from a storm) then they say it’s a “heavy” winter for snow. The total amount of snow is not really considered in this, just depth of the largest falls.
#4, temperature. I’m at 7000 feet, and yeah, it gets chilly in winter. Zero F is not uncommon. But, we also get some huge (compared to lower altitudes) daily temp swings. It’s not at all uncommon to see a 35 degree difference between daytime and nighttime temps. Today for example (fairly mild for this time of year) had a high of 51 at my house, it’s now 20, and I’m expecting low teens or single digits overnight. This can have a major impact on snowmelt.
#5 predators. We do have a pretty healthy supply of mountain lions. I don’t see them often, but I find their tracks on my property all the time. Same for bears (except the pesky bears also damage stuff. Absolutely unbearable, they are.)

DeNihilist

But Willis, it’s worse then we thought! According to this paper just released, plants emit a natural molecule, Criegee Biradical, that converts sulfur dioxide into sulphuric acid, which seeds clouds. So if the Antelope keep on destroying the plants, we may warm to Smithereens!
http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/01/12/newly-discovered-molecule-criegee-biradical-may-have-cooling-effect-on-earth/

ironargonaut

What do you estimate the height of the undergrowth clearing to be? Now look up the height of an elk. Why would anyone think an elk did this? Maybe they discovered a new pygmy species. Called goats

John F. Hultquist

Mike D. says:
January 12, 2012 at 8:16 pm
The following statement in the article is wrong:
“Originally there were elk over much of the US.”

Come on Mike, lighten up. The nit-picking game is easy. For example, Willis uses “US” in the line you quote. Insofar as elk arrived before September 13, 1788 – the elk were originally here. {I’ve chosen a specific event for the date mentioned. March 4, 1789 would be an alternative. Others may claim another.}

RobertL

Actually, the “dog that didn’t bark in the night” was from the Sherlcok Holmes story, “Silver Blaze” – not “The Hound of the Baskervilles”.
The dog didn’t bark when the horse was stolen in the night – therefore the dog knew the thief.

http://www.pbase.com/compton_photographer/arkansas_elk
Elk get really big in Arkansas & Kentucky! The food or browse is high quality. You cannot even tell if they affect the understory, and we have plenty of birds.

Duster

Oh. man! Roast elk, medium rare, venison chops, braised black bear, antelope stew (or chili), do they hold hunters’ return banquets any more. BTW, there is the Tuke Elk Reserve west of Bakersfield, Calif. There are also herds now around San Luis Reservoir in the California Southern Coast Range.

Jessie

Al Gore, thank you for the post @8.06pm. .
Lawrie Ayres says: January 12, 2012 at 8:17 pm
In Australia the aborigines killed off our large herbivores 10000 years or so ago. Since then they relied on seasonal burning to encourage new growth for food species, ie. kangaroo. Now that the aborigines have retired to the cities and much of the bush is controlled by a PC National Parks and Wildlife Service ( National Sparks and Wildfires in the vernacular) who don’t do clearing or burning nor do they allow cattle or camels into the parks neither so every few summers the parks burn to the bare earth with consequential loss of habitat and life.
Tick for Parks and Wildlife Service. Apparently also the temperatures reached several metres underground by the Victorian fires were the equivalent (or more) of an atomic bomb.
1200 degrees Celsius
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Saturday_bushfires
Cross for historical ecology diatribe of hunter-gatherers.
1. Where is the evidence of this ‘seasonal burning’ by a history of ecologically sound practices developed by hunter gatherers?
Kangaroo and wallaby are notoriously difficult to spear, unless one is at a water hole, tracking an old, young, injured or rutting/preganant game. Or has deliberately fired up entire square kilometres of dry country with appropraite wind to instantly barbeque small meat [which can not escape] or thy enemy, or corral through flame.
2. Lightening strikes in northern Australia are far more likely to be a natural occurrence prior to the growing season http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2002/12/10/2583008.htm
Lightening strikes (with some rain) in the summer Dec/January months in the Central Desert are also far more likely to occur, thus a corollary to the myth of ‘fire’ harvesting.
3. What vegetation (species) actually regenerates after fire in Australia? And what vegetation regenerates normally after the wet season (and fire) with rains in Australia? I do not know.
However scientists in Western Australia have been publishing for some years on the effects of SMOKE on seed germination. Not fire (heat) but smoke.
http://www.uwa.edu.au/people/gavin.flematti
source: http://directory.uwa.edu.au/view?dn=ou=School+of+Chemistry+and+Biochemistry%2Cou%3DFaculty+of+Life+and+Physical+Sciences%2Cou%3DFaculties+of+Science%2Cou%3DFaculties%2Co%3DThe+University+of+Western+Australia
There is absolutely no evidence of a [slash and] burn [agricultural] society in Australian Aboriginal society. There is evidence of slash and burn practices in settled, large village dwelling PNGers.
Practically, if not having efficient technology, one would rely on a lightening strike to burn hectares and then walk through feeding of takeaway baked and smoked meats of goanna, skinks, echidna, marsupial rats, small lizards, native bee honey nests, birds and so on and on.
Presumably this style of civilisation would allow ample time for leisure and the development of extraordinary skill in the arts and culture. And the rights of women. And politics. As suggested by our pre-eminent authors of Australiana history.

kim2ooo

Hmmm if they are moving…up – down whatever…doesn’t that mean where they were is gaining grass / tree cover?

Jessie

Apologies to the grammar police for my mis-spellings in previous post.
Corrections
pregnant x1
appropriate x1
lightning x3

I will attempt to improve.

Willis Eschenbach

philincalifornia says:
January 12, 2012 at 8:23 pm

I don’t want to get you into trouble with the law Willis, so keep that gun in the closet would you, but there’s a large herd of Tule Elk pretty close to where you live. Grizzly Island – the other side of Mount Diablo. You have to approach it from the north via I80. Well worth the trip.

True, and there’s elk even closer, a herd of tule elk over at the Point Reyes National Seashore. I saw some up north too, when I hitched up to Oregon, there’s a herd up by the border. Awesome creatures.
Thanks,
w.

Willis Eschenbach

Steve McIntyre says:
January 12, 2012 at 8:43 pm

The introduction of sheep in the southwest in the 1800s had a drmatic impact on understory of the same sort – see refs in McIntyre and McKitrick (E&E 2005),

True, and I’d forgotten your comments in that area.
Thanks,
w.

Jimbo

Regarding the human predators of Elk, I vaguely recall (though I could be wrong) that humans kill around 1,000 polar bears a year from their population of between 20,000 to 25,000. That’s 5,000 polar bears in 5 years! Nothing to do with global warming.
By the way Willis here is something from early December 2011 which is kind of similar to the Elk issue.

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
The Sahel, that stretch of harsh territory south of the Sahara desert, is a bleak region. I did some work there, in a couple three countries. I came away with the conviction that if every day, every person in the Sahel planted one fruit tree and killed one goat, in about twenty years it would be worth visiting……………………
PS—I’m dead serious about planting trees and killing goats. The main cause of what desertification occurs in the Sahel is humans, but not by way of CO2. We do it by burning whatever will burn to cook our food, and by letting the goats destroy the rest.
http://wattsupwiththat.com/2011/12/13/to-sahel-and-back/

Humans are having an effect on animals but it has very little, if nothing, to do with co2.

Willis Eschenbach

Arizona CJ says:
January 12, 2012 at 10:18 pm

I live in Northern Arizona, and while I think Willis’s article is excellent, I’d like to add a few observations:

#2, we have loads of large mule deer, with dietary habits very similar to Elk.

Thanks, AZ, as you might imagine I value actual observations and real measurements over anything else, so I appreciate the report. I was wondering how the study which fenced out the elk distinguished that from fencing out the deer. Then I was wondering if there were even deer in the area. Always more to learn.

#5 predators. We do have a pretty healthy supply of mountain lions. I don’t see them often, but I find their tracks on my property all the time. Same for bears (except the pesky bears also damage stuff. Absolutely unbearable, they are.)

Always good to hear of wilder places. My point was that over much of the elks’ range (and perhaps in your area as well) the numbers of all of the large carnivores are greatly decreased from their historical levels. This has had the usual result, that the herbivores need human predation to keep their populations in check. I suspect that their main predator back in the day was wolves, and they’re real thin on the ground these days …
All the best, stay warm in the high country,
w.

Al Gored

Re: January 12, 2012 at 8:06 pm
“This lack of historical context is the biggest problem with all the bogus studies like this, including”
To clarify, the bogus studies I refer to here is not this one but the original one which is critiqued.

richard verney

I do not know what the adjustments have been made to the adjusted data and there appears a significant step change around 1940/50 but with that caveat in mind and just eyeballing the snowfall plot (Figure 1), during the period 1890 -1940, the snowfall hovers around the 50 inch mark whereas between 1950 – 2010, it hovers around the 100 inch mark. It is difficult to envisage how anyone looking at that plot would conclude that snowfall in recent times has dropped and looking at that plot, it runs counter intuitive to the central meme of the paper.
It all appears poor quality science such that one would be ashamed to put one’s name to the paper.

Viv Evans

@ Al Gored, January 12, 2012 at 8:06 pm:
Thank you very much for that link to Dr Charles E. Kay’s study.
It is chilling to read, especially in view of the devastation of riparian environments, thanks to overgrazing by ungulates. It is a striking example of ideology-driven eco-management, which uses pretty labels for the general public, while unintentionally and stubbornly destroying that which the profess to ‘save’.
Other examples of that kind of ideology-driven devastation, this time due to cAWG, can be found across theplanet, no need for me to enumerate them.

For clarity does ‘Elk’ refer to Cervus canadensis aka Wapiti? For many of our European readers ‘Elk’ would refer to Alces alces which would be ‘Moose’ in Yank-speak. Caused confusion when I worked in Sweden, ‘Moose’ being the Swedish phonetic rendering of a vernacular reference to the female pudendum. The question ‘do you hunt Moose being greeted with more laughter than I was anticipating.

John Marshall

The Yellowstone history shows that elk numbers will expand by large multiples without predation. Wolves have now been introduced and the elk numbers are declining as wanted. The wolves are thriving as well with several packs hunting.
A drive through the park will show that elk eat anything. Browse marks 30ft above the ground show winter food of elk in this mountainous area.

Damage6

Alan Watt says: “This is indeed a worrisome development. Clearly we need to do some follow-up studies to determine whether climate change is affecting the taste of the elk. We need a large sample size to be valid. We’d also have to see whether the deteriorating taste of elk fillet is possibly balanced by an improving taste in elk roast. There are so many things we don’t know about the changing climate effects on elk; munch study is required.
Anyone in a position to apply for a grant?””
I dunno but I’ll volunteer to be an intern. I’ll bring my own rifle.