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Utah hunters claimed the state’s elk were disappearing. A BYU study found where they were hiding.

BYU researchers have found that Utah elk are hiding on private land during hunting season.

(Jim Shuler I Utah Division of Wildlife Resources) A herd of cow elk in northern Utah. A recent BYU study uncovered that Utah's elk herds have been taking refuge on private lands during hunting season.

Elk are one of the largest prizes in Utah’s big game hunts. But in 2012, the state’s elk herds seemed to vanish when hunting season started.

According to a recent study from Brigham Young University, Utah’s elk didn’t disappear — they got smarter. From January 2015 to March 2017, researchers found the animals were leaving public lands at the first sign of opening day to take refuge on private lands through the season.

“It’s crazy – on the opening day of the hunt, they move, and on the closing day they move back,” said study author and BYU professor Brock McMillan in a news release. “It’s almost like they’re thinking, ‘Oh, all these trucks are coming, it’s opening day, better move.’”

The elk migration was not just a problem for hunters. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources is required by law to “prepare a management plan for each deer and elk herd unit in the state,” according to the Utah Code, because the animals can be destructive to farmland.

And farmers were complaining.

“The state had been getting complaints on both sides of the issue with elk migrating to private lands,” co-author and BYU professor Randy Larsen said in the release. “One side says there are not enough elk to hunt — ‘Why are you issuing permits?’ — while private owners are saying ‘The elk are eating us out of house and home!’”

The DWR confirmed that the elk population hadn’t diminished — they had just moved away from the people who were hunting them and taking refuge on private property. In fact, the population was recorded as “significantly higher” than it should have been.

“In the wintertime, when we did our flights and our surveys, they were easy to find. They were out on the public lands, and that’s why they showed up in our counts quite clearly,” said Kent Hersey, a big game project coordinator at the DWR. “During the hunting season, we were hunting at such high levels that it was pushing them onto these private lands. And so they weren’t accessible to anybody except a very few [who] had access to those lands.”

To track the elks’ behavior, the DWR and BYU researchers tagged 445 elk with GPS locators. And in 2016, the DWR started issuing permits to hunt elk on private lands.

The study found that private-land hunting was effective in dispersing the animals — since researchers saw a 13% increase in elk visits to public land from 2015-2017, based on the GPS locator data.

Now the private hunts are recommended each year to the wildlife board for approval, and they have been successful in reducing the elk population to the required levels. However, the population is growing again, Hersey said, and they may start additional control efforts.

“I think a lot of the research on elk over the years has shown that they don’t like people. They avoid roads, and this is just yet another example of how much human pressure can really influence the behavior of these animals,” Hersey said. “What we’re going to try and do, and what we’ve learned to go forward with, is understanding how much our pressure can influence that behavior, and then how do we use that to make it behave the way we want them to?”

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