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Open-File Report 2011-1013

Monitoring Plan for Vegetation Responses to Elk Management in Rocky Mountain National Park

By Linda C. Zeigenfuss, Therese Johnson, and Zachary Wiebe

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Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in north-central Colorado supports numerous species of wildlife, including several large ungulate species among which Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus elaphus) are the most abundant. Elk are native to RMNP but were extirpated from the area by the late 1800s. They were reintroduced to the area in 1913–1914, and the elk population in the park grew to the point that park staff actively managed the herd from 1944 until 1968. In 1969, the active control of elk numbers was discontinued and replaced by natural regulation, and since then the herd has increased from approximately 500–600 animals to a high point ranging from 2,800 to 3,500 between 1997 and 2001. During this same period, there was an increase in the human population in the Estes Valley outside the park, which also provides elk range.

In recent years, there has been growing concern over the condition of vegetation in the park and conflicts between elk and humans, both inside and outside the park. In response to these concerns, RMNP developed an Elk and Vegetation Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement (EVMP/EIS) to evaluate the effects of a range of alternatives for managing elk and vegetation in the park. The purpose of the EVMP/EIS is to guide management actions in the park over a 20–yr (year) time period to reduce the impacts of elk on vegetation and restore, to the extent possible, the natural range of variability in the elk population and affected plant and animal communities.

The EVMP outlines the desired future condition for three vegetation communities of concern where the majority of elk herbivory impacts are being observed: aspen, montane riparian willow, and upland herbaceous communities. Implementation of the EVMP aims to manage elk and vegetation on RMNP elk winter-range such that significant progress toward reaching these desired future conditions occurs over the 20–yr life of the plan. The management alternative that was selected relies on a variety of conservation tools including fencing, non-lethal redistribution of elk, use of various vegetation-restoration techniques, and lethal reduction of elk (culling).

The EVMP incorporates the principle of adaptive management to assess the effectiveness of management actions. Use of adaptive management in the EVMP means that RMNP managers will adjust management actions as needed to successfully achieve the EVMP’s objectives. Determination of whether vegetation objectives are being achieved requires monitoring and evaluation of target vegetation communities. The objective of the work described in the current report was the design and implementation of a vegetation-monitoring program to help RMNP managers assess the effectiveness of their management actions and determine when and where to alter actions to achieve the EVMP’s vegetation objectives. This monitoring plan details the process of selecting variables to be monitored, overall sampling design and structure, site selection, data collection methods, and statistical analyses to be used to conduct this monitoring program in conjunction with the EVMP. We report the baseline conditions observed at the time of establishment of monitoring sites. We include detailed field protocols for site establishment and data collection, as well as timetables for sampling so that RMNP staff will be able to continue monitoring the sites established during this implementation stage, and continue to add new sites when necessary, as the execution of the EVMP proceeds over the next 20 yrs.

First posted February 28, 2011

Revised July 24, 2013

For additional information contact:

Director, Fort Collins Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
2150 Centre Ave., Bldg. C
Fort Collins, CO 80526

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Suggested citation:

Zeigenfuss, L., Johnson, T., and Wiebe, Z., 2011, (revised July 24, 2013) Monitoring plan for vegetation responses to elk management in Rocky Mountain National Park: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2011–1013, 94 p.,





Baseline Condition

Implementation of Monitoring



References Cited

Appendix 1: Rocky Mountain National Park Elk-Vegetation Monitoring Program Aspen Monitoring Protocol

Appendix 2: Rocky Mountain National Park Elk-Vegetation Monitoring Program Willow Monitoring Protocol

Appendix 3: Rocky Mountain National Park Elk-Vegetation Monitoring Program Upland Herbaceous Site Monitoring Protocol

Appendix 4: Rocky Mountain National Park Elk-Vegetation Monitoring Program Aspen Monitoring Site- Establishment Protocol

Appendix 5: Rocky Mountain National Park Elk-Vegetation Monitoring Program Willow Monitoring Site- Establishment Protocol

Appendix 6: Rocky Mountain National Park Elk-Vegetation Monitoring Program Upland Herbaceous Site- Establishment Protocol

Appendix 7: Rocky Mountain National Park Elk-Vegetation Monitoring Program Willow Monitoring Offtake Calculation Protocol

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