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Tracking Elk Movements

CNR Undergraduate Katie Anderson Wants to Understand How Elk Identify Safe Locations to Graze, Play and Rest

College of Natural Resources senior Katie Anderson came to appreciate elk through hunting. Now, she tracks elk and their movements across Idaho forests for her research. The findings from her study could influence management efforts to preserve elk populations and healthy herds for future generations of hunters.

“How elk behave within their environment is kind of important. People want to know about this,” said Anderson, 21, from Frenchtown, Montana. “I didn’t know it would be so big a deal.”

Researchers know that elk eating habits influence the types of plants commonly found in the forests of the Northwest. In turn, the location of the elk’s favored plants can dictate the movement of elk, and elk growth and survival will fluctuate with changes in plant availability. In addition, predators like wolves and coyotes depend on elk as a food source.

But the intricacies of elk movements across the landscape require further research. Anderson, who is majoring in ecology, wanted to understand how and why elk identify a specific safe location for their herd to graze, play and rest.

Anderson, under the supervision of Ryan Long, an assistant professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Sciences, monitored herd movements in the Sawtooth Mountain Range outside of Stanley, Idaho, and Diamond Creek in southeastern Idaho. She used her long-range telescope to study their patterns of vigilance, feeding and behavior.

Previous research suggests that an elk herd’s perception of its own safety is linked to the amount of vigilance displayed throughout the herd. As the number of herd members acting vigilantly increases, the herd feels less safe, and the less likely the adults are to allow the young to roam freely. Anderson documented how vigilance varied by location and environment.

Katie Anderson bends down to look through her telescope.
Katie Anderson gazing through her long-range telescope.

In terms of safety for the young, the foliage or grassland plays a role in protecting them. Anderson used a pole to measure whether the shrubbery was tall enough to hide young elk, and if it was, then that would mean a “safe” calving ground for a herd. Elk were usually less vigilant in “safe” calving grounds.

In addition to her field work, Anderson tracked elk using GPS collars attached to the elk by Idaho Fish and Game. This allowed Anderson to identify trends in elk movements as well as the elk’s land preferences.

Anderson said that human activity has led to the depletion of elk, which could lead to changes in the rest of the ecosystem. In the end, Anderson hopes to map out habitual elk locations so that, in the future, human development can stay away from these habitats and avoid disrupting the elk.

“It would be nice to have a map that shows where the elk think they are safe and where elk can raise a calf, so that humans, regardless of if you are a hunter, can avoid those locations,” Anderson said.

Meadow with flowers and brush in Sawtooth mountains.
Sawtooth mountains, credit Katie Anderson.

Katie Anderson is an OUR SURF award recipient.

Articles and photos by Remington Jensen, a junior from Boise, Idaho, majoring in journalism.

Published in July 2018.


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