Conserving Migration Corridors in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

Creating incentives can make migratory wildlife a benefit, not a burden, for the private landowners who provide critical habitat.

Elk, mule deer, pronghorn, and other migratory species need the freedom to roam in order to survive. In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, securing this freedom requires the support of a key group: private landowners. To conserve Yellowstone’s migratory pathways, we must find ways to make wildlife a benefit, not a cost, for the private landowners who provide critical habitat.

Recent research has revealed the important role private landowners play in supporting these migration corridors. Nearly one-third of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is under private ownership. The ecosystem’s herds of elk, pronghorn, and mule deer—critical food sources for wolves and grizzly bears—rely on private lands for essential habitat, especially during the winter.

According to the University of California, Berkeley, researcher Arthur Middleton, elk in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem spend as much as 80 percent of their time on private land during the winter. In Montana’s Paradise Valley, north of Yellowstone National Park, recent harsh winter conditions have forced elk to spend more time on private working lands. And in southeastern Idaho, researchers with the University of Montana found that 50 percent of the lands used by mule deer migrating from summer to winter range were in private ownership.

Migratory ungulates such as elk, deer, and pronghorn can impose significant costs on landowners, especially those who manage their property for agriculture. Landowners in Montana, for example, surrender more than $31 million in livestock forage to wildlife each year. Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks has reported individual farmers losing up to $8,000 a year in vegetable crops consumed by elk.

The potential for wildlife such as elk to transmit the disease brucellosis to cattle also creates the risk of financial ruin for many ranching families. Researchers with the University of Wyoming estimate the average cost of quarantining a herd of 400 cattle suspected of having the disease is $140,000—almost three times the average annual income for ranchers.


PERC’s approach to conservation relies on voluntary exchange that results in positive environmental outcomes for both private and public resources.

PERC believes that if efforts to conserve the big-game migrations of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are to succeed, they must make economic sense for the landowners who own much of the essential habitat. This means incorporating market mechanisms and entrepreneurship to better align incentives to conserve habitat, thereby making wildlife an economic asset, or at least less of a burden, instead of a liability.


PERC is working to develop conservation approaches that help sustain migration corridors in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by engaging landowners with a bottom-up approach. To do so, we are working to create financial tools, incentives, and policies that help landowners conserve and enhance wildlife habitat. Through detailed case studies, landowner surveys, and academic research, we aim to find solutions that:

  • Address regulatory burdens that prevent or discourage landowners from conserving wildlife and their habitat
  • Create incentives for landowners to conserve or enhance wildlife habitat
  • Expand access to new markets
  • Mitigate the risks of wildlife-related disease and property damage through the use of innovative financial tools

Conserving Yellowstone’s migration corridors will require support from many stakeholders, especially the private landowners who steward so much of the region’s important wildlife habitat. PERC’s research starts with listening to the region’s landowners to identify and understand how wildlife positively and negatively affects their livelihoods. By working with—and listening to—these landowners, we aim to help turn wildlife into an economic asset instead of a liability to ensure that rural communities and wildlife populations can thrive for generations to come.

Research on This Topic

Brucellosis Compensation Fund: A new tool to support ranchers who provide elk habitat by mitigating the financial risk of brucellosis, a disease that can transfer from elk to cattle and impose a significant cost on a ranch operation.

Elk Occupancy Agreement: An innovative tool to conserve elk habitat in Paradise Valley, MT launched by PERC and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in partnership with a local family ranch.

A New Tool to Help Livestock and Wildlife Coexist: An op-ed in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on the elk occupancy agreement launched by PERC and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

VIDEO: Elk in Paradise: Rancher, Ecologist, Hunter: An award-winning short film that tells the story of elk in Paradise Valley, the impact of their migration through private working lands, and how creative conservation can conserve their ancient pathways.

Transferable Landowner Hunting Permits in Montana: A policy brief outlining a roadmap for the state of Montana to adopt a transferable landowner hunting permit program.

Conserving Wildlife Habitat With Landowner Hunting Permits: A policy brief outlining lessons from western states to enhance voluntary conservation on private lands.

Conserving Migratory Habitat on Private Lands: Policy proposals for the Biden administration to engage private landowners in conserving migrations.

Elk in Paradise: Conserving Migratory Wildlife and Working Lands in Montana’s Paradise Valley: This report provides a toolkit of strategies that landowners, conservationists, and policymakers could employ to help sustain the working land of Paradise Valley and the wildlife they support.

PERC Reports: Conserving Migration Corridors: An issue of PERC Reports magazine on how to engage private landowners in conserving migration corridors.

Conserving Wildlife Migration Corridors: A statement before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife on the critical role private landowners play in conserving migration corridors.

Addressing Brucellosis Will Help Ranchers and Wildlife: An op-ed in the Billings Gazette on how reducing the liability of elk borne by landowners by addressing the risk of brucellosis can help conserve migration corridors.

Recognizing Private Lands for their Public Benefit: An op-ed in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on the value of private, working lands in providing essential habitat for wildlife in Montana’s Paradise Valley.

Conserving Wildlife Migrations Starts With Listening to Landowners: An op-ed in The Hill on the importance of involving private property owners in wildlife migration policies.

The Hunting Season, Thank a Private Landowner: An op-ed in the Livingston Enterprise on the wildlife we enjoy depends on the stewardship of private landowners.