• BOOKS ABOUT WILDLIFE AND HEALTH

  • My latest book available in paperback and eBook formats

  • Available from Amazon paperback or Kindle

  • Updated w/double blind study results. Ebook or paperback

  • New updated edition available NOW!

  • Recent Posts

  • Tracking Footprints

  • Archives

  • Top Posts

  • Pages

The Mysterious Elk

When hunting season is over and the rush for Christmas trees or winter wood dies down, the elk return.  The elk that migrate to this valley are ‘Park’ elk–elk that summer in the high Absarokas of the Lamar drainages.  1500 to 2000 elk travel here when the snows push them to seek easier feed.  It’s in their DNA to make this trek.

Personally, I look forward to them arriving.  And although they are leery of my presence, I enjoy their company.  For many winters now I arise early, before dawn, several times a week and drive the valley’s dirt road.  It’s that early morning time when you have the potential to see wildlife–wolves, coyotes, elk and moose.  The elk and deer feed usually at dawn or dusk.  The predators have learned to travel at night.  Keeps the humans away!

Sunrise at my house

Sunrise at my house

And although these elk have been thoroughly studied, they still contain many mysteries.  For instance, for the past seven years that I’ve lived here, the elk have a ‘usual’ pattern of movement.  In January/February, they spend time in larger herds of up to 700.  They feed dawn and dusk on the flats behind my house and another large herd feeds across the river in various areas.  During the day they retreat to the cover of the trees to digest and rest. They move, but their movements are fairly predictable.  As the weather warms, they break up into smaller herds (are these ‘family’ groups?), feeding in areas that have been opened up from the snows. Usually by late April, they’ve gone to the high country to calve; if the snows linger then I’ve see them calve in the valley.

Coveted elk habitat on property that could be a subdivision

Coveted elk habitat on private property that could be a sold into a subdivision

Last winter the snows were constant and really deep, starting early February.  A large herd of elk stayed by my front yard, feeding in the willows and resting under cover at night.  Although over 70% of an elk’s diet is grasses, when snows are deep, elk will eat shrubbery such as aspens, willows, and even conifer bark.  Last winter was also constantly windy. I noticed the elk preferred a place in the meadows where the topography dipped slightly–a wind buffer.  So intelligent they are!

So far this year is a totally different, and mysterious, story.  Several years ago the large ranch in the valley replaced their 12′ high barrier fence with a low attractive wooden fence.

Elk stuck inside fence and can't get to safety

Elk stuck inside fence and can’t get to safety

The elk used to get trapped inside with only two gates open, ‘sitting ducks’ for wolves.  The ranch irrigated their fields and trucked their cattle in from May through October. Their fields were seriously overgrazed. When the high fences came down, elk moved through but not as much as I thought they would.  I supposed there was little feed left after the cows departed.   This year the ranch hands convinced the owner that the fields needed to rest, maybe as much as five years.  So they stopped irrigating, reduced the cattle to just a few head, and began the resting process.  And guess what?  The elk are herded up there, about 200 every day.

The new fence with lots of elk there this year.  They are resting these grasses so have reduced cattle grazing

The new fence with lots of elk there this year. They are resting these grasses so have reduced cattle grazing and stopped irrigating

Yet this is not what surprises me about this year’s elk movements.  For the first time ever, I’ve watched them graze heavily in an area of high sagebrush cover.  Also their groups are already smaller (not the usual large January herds)–between twenty to two hundred–and they are in all sorts of habitat. Plus the elk appear much more relaxed.   They are feeding beyond dusk or dawn–in fact, at all hours of the day.  The only thing I can figure is that we had such a great winter that the grass is nutritious and rich everywhere.  I just wish I understood what drives them to feed in these sagebrush areas as well–what kind of native grasses are there that they are enjoying compared to the stock grasses they also like on the cattle pastures.

G&F habitat that usually is never grazed by the elk.  This year they are loving it!

G&F habitat that usually is never grazed by the elk. This year they are loving it!

When I told one person about how relaxed the elk appeared, he replied that maybe the wolves are gone.  Not so.  I saw two wolves the other morning.  And these elk are adapted to our wolves who follow them.  Middleton’s own study on these elk showed that only when wolves are around 1 kilometer (1/2 mile) away do elk begin to react.

On the other hand, although I did see 2 wolves, I have seen very few wolf tracks.  If all the elk are here, where are the wolves?

Coyote travels one way while a wolf travels in the opposite direction

Coyote travels one way while a wolf travels in the opposite direction. Taken two days ago

Another mystery:  There is an elk carcass along the road–a young elk maybe 3 years old.  Although the elk was completely eviscerated, she has a lot of meat on her and is still completely intact as far as her skeleton and hide.  I’ve been watching it for five days, and haven’t seen any birds on it, nor any other predators.  A few coyote tracks, a few wolf tracks, and a lot of Koda, my dog, tracks!  Although there is no wolf hunt this year, the wolves never linger to be watched like they used to.  They have quickly learned that humans are their mortal enemies.  It just might be this carcass is too close to the dirt road for their comfort, even at night!

Koda, Koda’s ball, and wolf tracks

 

Elk–the poster child for an elegant chaos

Yesterday down by the river Koda found a large cow elk carcass.  I usually follow the dog when he’s intent on something as he invariably leads me to interesting stuff.  And he kept his promise, for this was no ordinary carcass. This elk had a collar, a VHF tracking collar.  I assumed, rightly so, that this was a collar left over from Arthur Middleton’s 3 year elk field study in my valley.  Just last month I caught an elk on my trail camera by my house wearing a collar.  I contacted Arthur because I was surprised there were still some elk with them.  Apparently some of the collars employed for the study were designed to fall off; but others were going to stay with the elk for life.

I decided the best thing was not to touch the collar, but to contact the game warden.  I knew they’d want the collar back, even if it no longer carried data or was active.  The collars can be refurbished and save the WG&F around $600. But I wasn’t sure if they wanted to check the elk’s health out, with the collar on, before I removed it for them.  Since the carcass was in a fairly easy access location, I did worry that someone would come bye and snatch the collar for themselves as a souvenir.  When I spoke with the warden, he requested that I go back, obtain the collar, and save it for him.

Predated elk with collar.  How the elk died, we don't know.  But she provided a good meal for a lot of predators.

Predated elk with collar. How the elk died, we don’t know. But she provided a good meal for a lot of predators.

I noticed that she only had one ivory.  When she was collared back in around 2008, they took one of her ivories (her eye tooth) to determine her age.  Judging by her teeth, she was an older cow, but once the warden retrieves the collar, they can match it up and determine her exact age at death.  At long last, she’ll get that collar off.  I did feel badly that she had to move around with that collar around her neck all these years.

Arthur Middleton’s study in my valley was commissioned to find out why this migratory elk herd has such a low cow/calf ratio.  He spent three years of fieldwork, and several more writing his thesis.  Since that time, Arthur was awarded a prize/grant to study the other 5 migratory elk herds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.  You can read the controversial results of that study here on my blog, and here on the web.

One of the many interesting findings was the rate of vigilance displayed by elk relative to wolves.  Before the study, everyone was postulating that wolves were responsible for the low calf ratios.  The theory out there was that wolves were pushing the elk hard and therefore stressing them out.  This additional stress led to less foraging, more vigilance, and just less calving success.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter.

About 2000 elk are in the valley in winter.  These are the YNP Lamar elk herd.

The results debunked this theory.  First off, there was no more vigilance with the migratory herd than the non-migratory herd that was used for comparison in the study(where wolves are present although not as many; and they had normal cow/calf ratios).  But more interesting was that elk did not show any signs of stress or movement until wolves were within 1 km, and these wolf/elk encounters occurred, on average, once every 9 days.  These factors are important to what Arthur is now stirring up a storm of controversy with.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation helped fund Middleton’s study. But they seem to ignore the results of the study and still blame wolves for all the decline.  Included in the above 80% is the overpopulation of elk on the Northern range present before wolves.  YNP was killing elk for years to help reduce the herd.  One reason why wolves were introduced in 1996.

Just recently, Middleton had an op-ed in the New York Times.  In it, he contends that his results, as well as other studies, challenge the straight forward idea of wolves and trophic cascades.  In other words, that wolves herd the elk sufficiently to allow less browsing on aspens and willows, allowing them to regenerate.  The idea of trophic cascades is no doubt true (apex predators affect whole ecosystems), but Arthur is saying ecosystems have a lot more complexity to them then the simple fix of restoring top predators.

One of the ideas rattling around these days in biology is the Landscape of Fear.  I’m not a biologist, but the whole notion never sat right with me.  Simply put, the theory maintains predators will change the behavior of their prey, through fear, in ways that affects the their movement throughout the landscape, changing their feeding patterns and thus the plant material.  True, but maybe not the whole of it I think.  Ecosystems are varied and complex.  Arthur posted a photo of a wolf den with a herd of elk grazing nearby.  We humans have certain notions of fear-consciousness, yet this might not at all be what’s driving all the movements of wildlife.  As I said in that previous post, I still think nature has more to do with adaptation and awareness, than with so-called ‘fear’.

Recently I took a class with James Halfpenny in the Park.  He was asked about the wolf-coyote relationship.  It has been documented that wolves killed about 50% with the wolf reintroduction, but now their population seems to have recovered.  Coyotes are using the ‘inbetweens’ of the wolf territories to move around.  It didn’t take them long to work out, and remember instinctively, their age-old relationship with their big brothers and how to live with them (and take advantage of their kills).

And if wolves are herding elk from intensive aspen/willow foraging, I have to ask why the pack of six wolves in my valley was slacking on the job.  When the snows got really deep, the elk settled in my front yard and forest, topping every single aspen and willow they could reach.

Wolf wary of infared light

Wolf wary of infared light