The Horseshoe Flats area provides both transitional and winter habitat for a herd of elk that summer in the Big Hole Mountains and winter along the central section of the Teton River corridor and nearby uplands. In the winter, deep snow forces elk down from the higher elevations of the Big Hole Mountains to Teton River bottomlands and adjacent benchlands in the vicinity of Horseshoe Flats. Around 150 elk from the Big Hole Mountains elk herd use this important habitat area, which includes multiple conservation easements and properties owned by Teton Regional Land Trust and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The greater Horseshoe Flats area also provides important breeding and wintering habitat for Columbian sharp-tailed grouse, an Idaho Species of Greatest Conservation Need.
The winter range of the Big Hole Mountains elk herd lies within or near winter cattle-feeding operations for several ranches. When elk herds mix with cattle in winter feeding areas, it increases the likelihood of brucellosis, an infectious disease, transmission from elk to cattle. If cattle become infected, it has significant financial impacts on both the individual cattle operator and the State’s cattle industry. Also, management action taken against wild herds suspected of transmitting brucellosis can be severe. Past conflicts between this herd and cattle have resulted in mitigation efforts that include hazing, fencing hay stack yards, and feeding elk in secure areas away from cattle.
Teton Regional Land Trust, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service have partnered on a project in the Horseshoe Flats area to improve winter habitat to keep elk out of cattle-feeding areas on the east side of the Teton River and benefit nesting/brooding Columbian sharp-tailed grouse.
The project will convert crested wheatgrass and smooth brome-dominated lands to native grass species and forbs beneficial to elk and sharp-tail and create legume food plots to benefit both species during winter-early spring. In addition, a 20-acre grain food plot will also be established for pre-migration staging sandhill cranes, also an Idaho Species of Greatest Conservation Need. ■