Road to Six Million: The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Restoration Projects

Six million, and counting. Acres, that is. Acres of elk country. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation last month announced the conservation of its six-millionth acre of land, part of a 560-acre prescribed burn outside Cody, Wyoming. As the RMEF notes in a news release, the total includes more land than Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite, Rocky Mountain and Great Smoky national parks combined. The milestone represents the conservation of 608 acres every day throughout RMEF's 27-year history. It's land that has been returned to the public domain through land swaps. It's ground that has been improved with rest-rotation grazing programs, water improvement, managed timber harvest and controlled burns. It's land that benefits elk, but a wide variety of other wildlife species, too. So what do some of these acres of conserved land look like? Read on for a gallery of some of America's most hallowed hunting grounds.
The official six millionth acre recorded was part of a recent RMEF-funded, 560-acre prescribed burn at Devil's Canyon on BLM lands near Cody, Wyoming. In 1998, Devil's Canyon Ranch owners closed a road crossing their property--the only road accessing 20,000 acres of public land beyond. RMEF helped acquire the 11,179-acre ranch and convey it to the BLM.
In 1990, RMEF and partners purchased the 4,725-acre Howard Ranch in northeast Nevada. The area soon served as a model for uniting wildlife and livestock interests, and also became the nucleus of an effort to restore a huntable elk herd in the area. The ranch is now owned and managed by the state, as the Bruneau River Wildlife Management Area.
With financial and technical assistance from RMEF, and with broad public support in receiving states, elk were reintroduced in Wisconsin in 1995, Kentucky in 1996, Ontario in 1998, Tennessee in 2000, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001 and Missouri in 2011. The bulls in the photo are part of Kentucky's fast-growing herd. The Kentucky heard is now the largest East of the Rockies with some 10,000 animals.
RMEF volunteers install a water tank as part of an innovative pipeline project to improve habitat south of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. A 1½-inch pipe, 12 miles long, delivers useable wastewater from the City of Tusayan to wildlife watering sources in the famed trophy elk area, Unit 9. It took six years to design, facilitate and build the system.
On the Bosque del Oso State Wildlife Area in Colorado, RMEF funding has been used since 2000 for prescribe burns, forest thins and other projects to improve habitat for elk and other wildlife. RMEF's six million-acre landmark includes five million acres of similar habitat enhancement projects, mostly on public lands, nationwide.
RMEF's six million-acre mark also includes one million acres of permanent land protection. For example, RMEF in 1987 acquired 17,167 acres in Montana's Robb Creek area, assumed the lease on 17,619 acres of associated lands and conveyed the entire holding to the state. Now, permanently protected from subdivision and development, the area also is open to the public as the Robb-Ledford Wildlife Management Area.
Many hunters believe Pennsylvania's lush habitat could produce the next world record bull. Since 1994, the RMEF has funded and helped create thousands of acres of forest openings to improve foraging conditions for hungry elk across the Keystone State.
Pictographs on rock faces in the Book Cliffs area of Utah depict prehistoric elk hunting scenes. In 1991, RMEF helped keep the hunt alive by working with partners to purchase four ranches in the area totaling more than 20,000 acres and securing public access by conveying the land to the BLM. RMEF stewardship programs today help keep the elk habitat in top shape.
Tule elk, a subspecies found only in California, thrive in Cache Creek-area habitat that RMEF has helped improve over the past 19 years. Projects have included 4,591 acres of noxious weed treatments, grass seeding, fertilization and irrigation and more. RMEF even helped with herd distribution by capturing and relocating elk in the area.
In Arkansas, a thriving elk herd wanders the lands of the Ozark National Forest, Buffalo National River and Gene Rush Wildlife Management Area. In 2007, RMEF worked with private landowners to place a conservation easement on 314 acres smack in the middle of it all. The easement restricts development of the property, even if it changes hands in the future, thus protecting the landscape in perpetuity from habitat fragmentation.
In 2008, RMEF helped broker one of the largest land swaps in Washington history. Negotiated over two years, 20,970 acres of state lands scattered in mostly small parcels were exchanged for 82,548 acres belonging to Western Pacific Timber. Both collections of parcels were valued at $56.5 million, but the project netted 61,578 additional acres of permanent elk habitat and new public lands on the east slope of the Cascades.
When RMEF launched its habitat programs in 1984, there were 550,000 elk in North America. Fifteen states and four provinces had elk hunting. Today, almost 1.2 million wild elk roam the continent and 23 states and six provinces hold elk hunts. This success is a testament to many kinds of conservation and management efforts--and the amazing adaptability of elk.
But habitat continues to degrade at an alarming pace. Many forests are overgrown and undermanaged. Weeds are rampant. And, nationwide, as much as 5,000 acres per day disappear beneath poorly planned urban growth, rapid subdivision and development. Uncontrolled wolf populations loom as another threat to the game herds that hunters have worked so hard to build. So there's much work to be done, even as RMEF pauses to commemorate an important milestone. Photo by Vic Schendel.
Hunters all across elk country can celebrate RMEF's six million-acre mark. After all, that's a lot of habitat. Lined up end to end, six million square acres would wrap around Earth's equator 9-1/2 times. It averages out to 33 acres per RMEF member, and 608 acres per day throughout RMEF's 27-year history. And it's room enough for many hunters to spread out and find their own kind of trophy.