MISSOULA — Every unlucky elk hunter outsmarted by the “wily wapiti” has grudging respect for the animal.
But after spending 15 years monitoring herds along Banff National Park, Mark Hebblewhite has more than respect. He’s verging on soap opera scripts.
“One of first elk I collared in 2001 just ended her life,” the University of Montana wildlife biology professor said Monday. “Her collar came back this winter when they found her dead. She used to migrate into the park for winter range, into some Bob Marshall-type country. Then she gave up migrating for about five years. Then she started migrating again, but to a different area, more foothills country where she could find food and avoid grizzly bears. We wouldn’t have seen those changes if we hadn’t watched her over her whole lifetime. It was like a ‘Days of Our Lives’ series with elk.”
The value of such long-term research was made apparent earlier this month when the National Science Foundation awarded $435,000 to continue the project for another five years. Only one other study comes close – a 16-year project at Montana State University that ended in 2011.
Hebblewhite and co-investigator Evelyn Merrill of the University of Alberta have guided at least 10 graduate students and dozens of undergraduates through the rigors of elk ecology with the study of the Ya Ha Tinda herd. Starting with VHF radio collars, the project has evolved into satellite GPS tracking that reveals where elk spend days and nights, where they have their calves and what kinds of habitat they move to season to season.
“The average female elk can live 20 years, and they make decisions on a day-to-day basis. They react to forest fires, clear-cuts and colonizing predators. So if you collar an elk and see what she does for two or three years, and assume that’s what she’ll do for the rest of her life — that’s not at all the case. We’re seeing changes in migratory patterns in the Blackfoot, in Yellowstone and in the Bitterroot. Those changes are made up of individual females changing their behavior over life.”
Scott Eggeman earned his graduate degree on the Ya Ha Tinda study and now serves as the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 2 wildlife biologist for the Blackfoot and Seeley Lake area. He’s developing a research project for that area using principles developed under Hebblewhite’s program.
“We’ve lost a lot of migratory behavior in the Blackfoot,” Eggeman said. “We want to look at ways of treating public land habitat that might draw elk off the private land and back onto public land. We know elk make trade-offs on a day-to-day basis about the risk or threat of predation and the availability of forage. If the forage outweighs the risk of predation, they make that decision. In the Blackfoot, one thing that’s been happening is the forage quality is not the greatest on public land. We want to see if we can balance that trade-off differently.”
The project is still in the planning stages and will probably involve a mix of public and private players. Another benefit of the Ya Ha Tinda research has been its physical location. Scientists base their operations on a small ranch owned by the Alberta provincial government, surrounded by a mix of grazing leases, public timberland and a national park. The conglomeration of ownership adds people’s reactions to elk behavior into the study.
“They’re social animals that learn from each other,” Hebblewhite said of the herds. “Females learn from mothers how to behave, whether to migrate. We’ve also seen there’s a big gradient in elk personalities, from extremely bold, adventurous, thrill-seeking elk to extremely shy, risk-averse elk. When presented with options like whether to migrate to a summer range in the mountains with good food but lots of grizzly bears, or staying next to a ranch with a generator that runs all night that the bears don’t like but the food isn’t as good, there’s lots of variation in how they respond.
“If we have a hunting season that targets the bold elk that migrate, we can lose the ones who know the routes. How they respond is determined by who lives and dies.”