Pro Staff Blog

Yellowstone Fires Sparked Elk Foundation Work in 24 States


MISSOULA, Mont.–This year marks the 20th anniversary of the great Yellowstone fires. It was an event that turned America’s first national park into a living laboratory for measuring fire’s effects on habitat for elk and other wildlife, and shaped the conservation vision of a young Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Just four years old in 1988, the Elk Foundation saw Yellowstone as the impetus for two new programs that remain top priorities today.

These efforts have now benefited 24 states with improved habitat and healthier elk herds.

The Elk Foundation’s first Yellowstone-inspired program was a more aggressive habitat stewardship effort emphasizing controlled fire. Today the Elk Foundation has facilitated more than 870 projects involving prescribed burns across 18 states, enhancing over 1 million acres of elk habitat, nearly all on public land.

“More than 97 percent of these projects have occurred since 1988 with similar habitat benefits as those being documented in Yellowstone. Fire has returned treated lands to a more natural condition, opened forest canopies, restarted plant succession and added diversity, stimulated aspen growth and increased nutritional values of certain grasses that elk need for grazing,” said Tom Toman of the Elk Foundation.

A roundup of RMEF-funded prescribed burns:

  • Arizona–48,357 acres
  • Arkansas–1,137 acres
  • California–15,887 acres
  • Colorado–89,102 acres
  • Idaho–165,622 acres
  • Kansas–1,100 acres
  • Minnesota–10,192 acres
  • Montana–86,858 acres
  • North Carolina–425 acres
  • North Dakota–35 acres
  • Nevada–9,755 acres
  • New Mexico–123,366 acres
  • Oklahoma–19,370 acres
  • Oregon–148,826 acres
  • South Dakota–5,008 acres
  • Utah–61,444 acres
  • Washington–38,149 acres
  • Wyoming–172,827 acres

Biologists also learned some less pleasant lessons from Yellowstone due to the massive scale and unfortunate timing of the historic wildfires.

Toman explained, “In the months afterward, we saw dramatic declines in local elk populations–up to 40 percent loss in some areas–because so much winter range was decimated so late in the year. It showed us how not to conduct prescribed burns. But mostly it was a vivid example of what can happen to elk when crucial habitat is suddenly lost. And that led directly to our concern for protecting habitat from wildfire as well as subdivisions and other land-use changes.”

Thus, the second Elk Foundation priority to emerge from Yellowstone was a new program dedicated to permanent lands protection.

Today the organization has completed over 320 land protection projects such as conservation easements, acquisitions, conveyances to state and federal agencies, etc. These projects have conserved 861,211 acres (including many in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem) across 21 states.

Some of these acres have been opened for public access; others remain privately held with legal agreements helping to ensure crucial habitat for the region’s elk herd.

A roundup of RMEF permanent land protection projects:

  • Alaska–2,185 acres
  • Arizona–5,329 acres
  • Arkansas–514 acres
  • California–14,350 acres
  • Colorado–155,786 acres
  • Idaho–27,382 acres
  • Michigan–917 acres
  • Minnesota–943 acres
  • Montana–164,370 acres
  • Nebraska–12,317 acres
  • Nevada–11,325 acres
  • New Mexico–99,161 acres
  • North Dakota–6,326 acres
  • Oregon–38,573 acres
  • Pennsylvania–8,465 acres
  • South Dakota–31,815 acres
  • Tennessee–74,169 acres
  • Utah–33,310 acres
  • Washington–117,719 acres
  • Wisconsin–1,510 acres
  • Wyoming–54,744 acres

About the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

Snowy peaks, dark timber basins and grassy meadows. RMEF is leading an elk country initiative that has already conserved or enhanced habitat on over 5.4 million acres–a land area equivalent to a swath three miles wide and stretching along the entire Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico. Most work occurs on public lands. More than 561,000 acres have been opened or secured for public access including hunting, fishing and other recreation. Get involved at or 800-CALL ELK.

Kevin Paulson

Kevin Paulson is the Founder and CEO of His passion for Hunting began at the age of 5 hunting alongside of his father. Kevin has followed his dreams through outfitting, conservation work, videography and hunting trips around the world.

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