Do Elk Need Sagebrush?

September 11, 2017

Story below and photo above by Brianna Randall

Ask An Expert: Tom Toman, Director of Science & Planning, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

Do sage grouse and elk share habitat?

Elk range overlaps 37% of sage grouse range in the West.

We’ve found close to 40 million acres of overlap between sage grouse and elk habitat by looking at distribution maps from state wildilfe agencies—that’s 37% of sage grouse range!

Historically, elk were found in all but five states in the U.S. However, due to over-hunting, elk populations declined from more than 10 million to less than 100,000 by the late 1800s, most of which were found around Yellowstone National Park.

Today the elk numbers are back up to one million, thanks to the work of dozens of state wildlife agencies, federal land management agencies, and NGOs. Most elk are found in the West, just like sage grouse.

The sage-steppe plant community is more important than just one bird. It’s the backbone of an ecosystem that supports so many critters—including elk, deer and pronghorn.

How do elk use sagebrush?

Without sagebrush, elk would have a tougher time making it through the winter. Sagebrush are usually the tallest plants on the range, so elk can eat it when other plants are locked down under ice or snow.

Plus, you often find elk digging near sagebrush to access other forage beneath the snow. Sagebrush sticks up higher where it gets heated by the sun, warming and softening the snow around the plant for easier digging.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t understand how vital sagebrush is for elk and other critters. When I was a kid in Wyoming, I saw people spraying and killing sagebrush. As a wildlife biologist, I’m glad sagebrush habitat is finally getting the attention it deserves.

What else do elk eat?

Sagebrush provides food for elk, especially in the winter when other plants are buried in snow. Photo: Brianna Randall

Elk eat sagebrush, especially in the winter when other plants are buried in snow. Photo: Brianna Randall

Elk are one of the most adaptable animals out there. As generalists, they can survive on nearly anything.

Elk mainly eat grasses, but seek out forbs for protein in the spring. Cows especially need protein while producing milk for their young. Lupine, for instance, has one of highest protein contents: 28% protein versus 16% protein in alfalfa.

In the late summer when grasses and forbs start drying out, elk find browse species that still draw water, like antelope bitterbrush, serviceberry, sagebrush, or mountain mahogany. Then they shift back to grasses in late September when the land greens up again.

What are the main threats to elk?

Like most animals, elk don’t do well with a monoculture—they need diverse plant species to thrive. And to get diverse plants, there has to be a balance of different successional species. For instance, many of our forests in the West lack understory plants. Because humans have changed natural forest succession through fire suppression, we have dense forests of similar-aged trees.

In many places, sunlight can’t penetrate through to the forest floor to grow food for elk, or deer, or nesting ground birds. Because of the lack of nutritious forage in our forests, we have some Roosevelt elk that are only calving every second or third year

It’s a similar threat to sage grouse when sagebrush gets too old—nothing can grow beneath a big 100-year-old bush. Sage grouse can’t nest there because there are no grasses, and chicks can’t grow because there are no insects.

Bottom line: plant diversity is vital for healthy wildlife populations.

Sage Grouse Initiative investments protect vital winter elk habitat on working sagebrush rangelands.

What is RMEF doing to conserve sagebrush habitat?

RMEF has enhanced 550,000 acres of sagebrush country. Photo by Ken Miracle.

The Elk Foundation funded its first two habitat enhancement projects in sagebrush country in 1987. We really encourage active management on both public and private lands.

Since then, RMEF has contributed to over 500 habitat projects in sagebrush country, allocating more than $3.6 million that leveraged another $49 million in partner funds – including cost-share from the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative. On the ground, that translates to more than 550,000 acres of sagebrush ecosystem enhanced so far.

Projects include prescribed burning to restore diversity and nutritious forage on grasslands, weed management or tree thinning, and water development projects.

RMEF also has an active lands program, which has protected 1,174,669 acres through conservation easements or acquisitions. Many of these easements benefit sagebrush wildlife, such as the recent Wild Horse Ranch Project funded in part by the NRCS.

We also cost-share research projects around the country. Science-based monitoring helps us tailor conservation practices so that they are most effective for wildlife.

RMEF is about creating more healthy habitat for elk. In total across the nation, we’ve enhanced 6 million acres for elk and other wildlife.


How long have you working in sagebrush country?

Tom Toman is the Director of Science & Planning for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Tom Toman is the Director of Science & Planning for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

I spent 25 years at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, mainly as the district supervisor in Jackson. I moved to RMEF 22 years ago, where I currently serve as the Director of Science and Planning to make sure our projects and decisions are science-based.

I’ve always loved sagebrush. When everyone else heads to the mountain, I head out to the range. It’s a lot easier to see the many critters that live in sagebrush habitat. It’s always an interesting visit when I’m in sagebrush country.

What’s your favorite outdoor activity?

I love wildlife and landscape photography. Any species I can find to photograph is great, from spiders to elk. It’s a good excuse to get outdoors and really appreciate our natural environment. And it’s also a way for me to help people see and enjoy the beautiful things around us.


Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation works to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage. The nonprofit permanently protects crucial elk habitat, funds habitat improvement projects, improves hunter access, reestablishes herds in historic ranges, and supports research and management efforts to maintain productive elk herds and habitat. Founded in 1984 by four hunters from Troy, Montana, the nonprofit now has more than 500 chapters across the country.

Role with Sage Grouse Initiative: Elk and sage grouse share 40 million acres across the West— primarily elk winter range. RMEF has contributed to habitat enhancement and land protection projects throughout the sagebrush ecosystem, providing invaluable matching funds for SGI projects that benefit a host of wildlife species.

Learn More: | 1 (800) CALL ELK (225-5355)

The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.