HELENA — Elk respond more strongly to threats from humans than from wolves, and they are more likely to flee for protected refuges if there are hunters in the area, a recent study has found.
The findings by a team of scientists from Montana State University illustrate one of the difficulties in using hunting to manage elk populations across the West when the ungulates respond very quickly and dramatically to hunters in the area.
“Every hunter knows this already. They will tell you as soon as the first shot goes off, those animals are off to some protected area,” Robert A. Garrott, a Montana State University professor and a co-author of the study, said Monday. “This is a problem that every state managing elk comes across.”
Researchers used radio collars and Global Positioning Satellite to track 43 elk over two winters outside Yellowstone National Park. When there was no hunting in the area, most of the elk were found on flat grasslands that were not protected.
But the elk moved as soon as hunting season opened, heading to private ranches or Yellowstone National Park, where hunting is not allowed. Meanwhile, the elk made only modest adjustments to their behavior when wolves were close by.
That is likely because elk will only respond to an immediate threat of attack from the wolves, Garrott said.
“It’s not so much that wolves are not perceived as a threat, but where are elk going to run to where they have a refuge from wolves?” he said. “There aren’t those hard boundaries like there are for human hunters.”
The study appeared in the February issue of the Journal of Wildlife Management.
Ed Bangs, wolf recovery project leader for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said GPS and other forms of new technology has given scientists more insight into the lives of wild animals. But the results of this study are not surprising, he said.
Elk live near natural predators like wolves and they’ve learned to adapt to their presence, Bangs said. Avoiding hunters is a different story.
“People are the uber-predator out there, there’s nothing even close,” Bangs said. “It shows how adaptable and how fast these animals can learn. Not only with human predators, but with wild predators.”
The lesson for wildlife managers is that using human hunters to keep elk populations down is more likely to succeed if there is a lot of public access and a lot of hunters, he said.
Garrott said that may be true at first, but elk likely will eventually figure out new areas open to hunting and avoid those places, too.
“The more accessible a piece of public land is to hunting, the more likely it is that those prey animals in those areas with high human access perceive those as a high-threat area,” he said.
Derek Goldman, spokesman for the Endangered Species Coalition, said the findings underline that the biggest threat to elk is not wolves but habitat insecurity brought on by humans — hunting but other activities, too, such as use of motorized vehicles.
“The behavior effects on elk by wolves may be overstated,” he said.