Modeling elk and bison carrying capacity for Great Sand Dunes National Park, Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and The Nature Conservancy's Medano Ranch, Colorado

Product Type: 

Open-file Report

Year: 

2015

Author(s): 

Wockner, G., R. Boone, K.A. Schoenecker, and L.C. Zeigenfuss

Suggested Citation: 

Wockner, G., R. Boone, K.A. Schoenecker, and L.C. Zeigenfuss. 2015. Modeling elk and bison carrying capacity for Great Sand Dunes National Park, Baca National Wildlife Refuge, and The Nature Conservancy's Medano Ranch, Colorado. Open-file Report 2014–1200. Reston, VA: U.S. Geological Survey. 23 p.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and the neighboring Baca National Wildlife Refuge constitute an extraordinary setting that offers a variety of opportunities for outdoor recreation and natural resource preservation in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. Adjacent to these federal lands, the Nature Conservancy (TNC) manages the historic Medano Ranch. The total land area of these three conservation properties is roughly 121,500 hectares (ha). It is a remote and rugged area in which resource managers must balance the protection of natural resources with recreation and neighboring land uses. The management of wild ungulates in this setting presents challenges, as wild ungulates move freely across public and private landscapes.

The San Luis Valley was historically used for irrigated agriculture and ranching. Historically, livestock, including sheep (Ovis aries) and cattle (Bos Taurus), were grazed throughout the valley. The former Luis Marie “Baca” Ranch, which makes up the northern part of Great Sand Dunes National Park (hereafter “Park”) and all of the Baca National Wildlife Refuge (hereafter “Refuge”), was actively grazed by cattle until 2004. Bison (Bison bison), elk (Cervus elaphus), mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), and pronghorn (Antilocapra Americana) were native to the area until about the 1840s, when bison, elk, and pronghorn were extirpated.

Elk and pronghorn likely moved back into the area from surrounding populations to the north and south, and mule deer populations have varied through time. A population of 4,400 elk currently inhabits the area. The current bison population was established in 1986 for meat production. In 1999 TNC purchased the ranch and established a bison conservation herd, and eventually subcontracted management to a private rancher in 2005. A population of bison ranging in size from 1,200–2,000 ranges freely within the 16,100 ha Medano Ranch. Ungulate populations in the valley are regulated by hunting, with the exception of bison, which are rounded up and culled annually to maintain population levels.

In an effort to create and form the basis of a multi-agency ungulate management plan for the region, the Park sought the development of an elk and bison ecological carrying capacity model to provide guidance to resource managers.