Climate change may favor nonmigratory elk

Migration is dwindling all over the Earth; Wyoming elk are one example-

Climate change may favor couch-potato elk. Heading for the hills every spring appears worse than staying put. By Susan Milius. Science News.

I have to wonder what the pollution of the Gulf of Mexico will do to the continent spanning bird migrations?

20 Responses to “Climate change may favor nonmigratory elk”

  1. Salle Says:

    I find this an interesting position and think it is quite valid for the following points made in the article about the study…

    1 “Images show that the period when grasslands are thriving and green with prime nutrition for grazers shrank by 40 percent between 1989 and 2009, he said.”

    This is in reference to the usual, as we know it, migratory habitat used by the elk.

    2 “This premature grassland brownout fits with weather station data showing that over the past 21 years, the average July temperature in the migrants’ high-elevation summer range has risen more than 4 degrees Celsius, Middleton said. On top of that, nearly a decade of drought worse than the Dust Bowl dry-out has parched the Yellowstone region.”

    Thia brownout situation has been quite noticeable over the past decade that I have been paying attention to the affects in the greater YNP area. It is also the same for other near-by locations like central Idaho and other relatively wild areas in the northern Rockies. I hear that elk are making a comeback in the southwestern states, given this climate factor, I wonder how long that can/will last.

    3 “Skimpy food offerings in the high grasslands could help explain why calf production declined by 70 percent among the Clarks Fork migratory elk between 1989 and 2009, Middleton said. Now only about two-thirds of the adult Clarks Fork females get pregnant each year, compared with about 90 percent of the nonmigratory females in the same herd. With sparser rations during the summer, fewer migratory females seem able to manage both tending a calf and breeding again each year.”

    It’s about time someone was able to put this concept through the scientific process regardless of whether the anti-research crowd want to accept it or not. (Just to add a little sarcasm, this concept may actually be the real answer to the IDF&G nonquestion of elk pop declines, far more than the current belief that wolves have eaten them all because for wolves they resemble potato chips. But then, many don’t think there is such a thing as global warming.)

    • JB Says:

      I’m getting a kick out of imagining this poor graduate student explaining to the good folks at SFW that it isn’t so much wolves but climate change that is affecting elk populations. LOL! That’ ll go over like a lead balloon!

  2. SEAK Mossback Says:

    I hope they still get up on Clay Butte, about 9,500 feet – one of my favorite spots, although the forage was certainly sparser every other year after sheep were pastured there.

    I’ve noticed a somewhat similar phenomenon on a more micro scale right behind my house. I hike up to the alpine in August for deer and used to be pretty sure to find them in abundance above tree line through labor day weekend, after which the vegetation changed enough that they would move down into the higher timber where the forbs were still succulent. However, beginning a few years ago on about the same timeline they describe, the deer cabbage started drying up and browning much earlier so the hunting above tree line has gotten a lot more iffy after mid-August – in recent years, most have been in the timber by late August. The one exception was 2007 following a record 200 inch snowfall that retreated slowly enough to delay the vegetation cycle.

  3. Cody Coyote Says:

    This article reports on the science of Art Middleton’s very preliminary findings. It’s good as far as it goes , but he and his techies have a couple years of data crunching to sift and sort in the lab at Laramie. His cow elk carried their GPS collars for 3 years and just dropped them in mid-April. ( Those elk and collars that survived, anyway.). I would suggest to Middleton et al that he place some of his PowerPoint slides on line.

    What the article does NOT mention is the source of this study and who is paying for it , and who was not invited to the roundtable.

    It’s called the Absaroka Elk Ecology Study. It’s studying one anomalous elk herd in a unique area that cannot be taken to represent any generalities about elk health and populations anywhere else in Wyoming, even the next herd unit over.

    Middleton is a UW doctoral candidate . For the purposes of this study he’s joined at the hip with Wyoming Game and Fish, although all the federal agencies are cooperating with it, from Park Service on down to our old friends Wildlife Services and everyone in between.

    But get this: the $ 650,000 to finance this 5 year study was raised exclusively from pro-hunting anti-wolf organizations. The largest funder and lead donor is Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. They are followed by Safari Club chapters( 2) and a particularly generous foundation from Los Angeles with Safari Club connections. Pope and Young and Boone and Crockett are in, The Cody Country Outfitters and Guides Association chipped in. I have no idea who the Wildlife Heritage Foundation of Wyoming might consist of, but they’re ponyed in , too. The Wyoming Governors Big Game License Coalition is unknown to me. Finally but not the least we have Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, who are too well known to me.

    If you want to see some mustaches start to smoulder, just ask any of the above funders ( but especially SFW) why real wildlife conservation groups and environmental organizations were not asked to participate. They don’t have a good answer for that one.

    My own personal feelings about this study ( with all apologies to Middleton and his counterpart at Wyo G&F, my old friend and guitar pickin’ sidekick Doug McWhirter ) , the framework for this study ain’t exactly upright and plumb vertical. It’s heavily skewed towards finding and fingering wolves as biological agents in the loss of huntable elk and the unbalancing of elk herds. I’m using the plural “herdS” even though the study is keying in on just the one herd unit, which itself is skewbald.

    My feeling and fear is Wyoming Game and Fish with all their love and compassion for wolves as wildlife ( Not!) would be tempted to use the AEES findings as boilerplate for a statewide Wolf-Elk paradigm.

    So far, it appears that they are foiled on that. Middleton’s science seems to be taking elk somewhere else besides the wolf den. Somewhere more inconclusive than not. I see the need for several branched studies.

    I attended one of Middleton’s infrequent presentations on his study in Cody in May. I came away with more questions about both Elk and Wolves than I went in with. You used to be able to download a 2-year old description of the preliminary results and the goals of the study , 5 pages all nicely gift wrapped , at the nebulous Wyoming Game & Fish website , but I’ll be damned if I can find it there now. Methinks it’s been buried

    • TC Says:

      “If you want to see some mustaches start to smoulder, just ask any of the above funders ( but especially SFW) why real wildlife conservation groups and environmental organizations were not asked to participate. They don’t have a good answer for that one.”

      Name a “real conservation group” or “environmental organization” that contributes meaningful/significant dollars to wildlife research in the GYA or Rocky Mountain states on an annual basis, or that employs qualified research scientists with the time and resources to commit to collaborating on projects like this. I’m talking enough funding to get a large-scale multi-year study completed (i.e., well into six figures), or expertise in spatial statistics and GIS, modeling, capture and telemetry, epidemiology, habitat analysis, and the like. The general public knows appallingly little about funding research programs or projects, and how hard people work to cobble together money from ever-dwindling sources to get the work funded and done – sometimes you take the money where you can find it, as long as there are no strings attached relevant to scientific method or dissemination of results. That or you don’t do the work, don’t retain your position, don’t train any graduate students, and become an armchair expert taking potshots from the sidelines. And why is everything a conspiracy against (pick your issue/species, here, wolves), Arthur’s (not “Art’s”) research included? Arthur never set out to study wolves as a significant component of his project – there is another graduate student working on that angle. If you have questions about the scientific hypotheses, objectives, materials and methods, results, or conclusions drawn from the research that’s one thing and this should be encouraged in a respectful manner – this smarmy post is another thing, and it smells like manure.

    • Ralph Maughan Says:

      TC,

      I take personal exception to your statement. I am President of the Wolf Recovery Foundation. Each year we give money for scientific research into wolves.

      Ed Bangs just sent out notice of two completed and published studies for which we were one of the financial supports. They are:

      “Efficient, Noninvasive Genetic Sampling for Monitoring Reintroduced Wolves. Journal of Wildlife Management” 2010 AND “Surveying Predicted Rendezvous Sites to
      Monitor Gray Wolf Populations” Journal of Wildlife Management. 2010

    • Bob Wharff Says:

      Coyote,

      Do you really not have any idea who the Wildlife Heritage Foundation of Wyoming might consist of? The Wyoming Governor’s Big Game License Coalition is unknown to you? I thought you saw yourself as a reporter. Neither of those groups are hard to identify.

      I can tell you that absolutely no strings were attached to any funding provided by WY SFW.

      Your argument could be used to call all research into question that has received private funding. Wouldn’t that also negate global warming studies and just about every other piece of junk science this site seems to worship?

      I met Arthur Middleton for the first time in Jackson last month when he presented some of his findings. Your own bias results in your own loss of credibility. It leads me to the conclusion that since the study itself leaves more unanswered questions, you can only question the funding source.

    • JB Says:

      Bob Wharff:

      Privately-funded research should always be approached with additional skepticism, especially given the well-known publication bias for studies with statistically significant results. However, I agree with you that private support for research does not necessarily mean the study is biased or flawed. I was intrigued, however, by this statement: “Wouldn’t that also negate global warming studies and just about every other piece of junk science this site seems to worship?”

      Are you asserting that studies investigating global climate change are “junk science”?

    • WM Says:

      Ralph,

      To put TC’s inflammatory comment in context, about “environmental groups” not putting any real money into research projects, what level of funding is the Wolf Recovery Foundation able to put up in the wolf studies it underwrites?

    • Bob Wharff Says:

      JB said: Are you asserting that studies investigating global climate change are “junk science”?

      What I am saying is that any privately funded study would be considered junk science, even global warming studies which are privately funded.

    • Ralph Maughan Says:

      Bob Wharff,

      Is there a typo in the comment you just made?

      I don’t think it reads in a way that makes sense.

  4. Robert Hoskins Says:

    By the way folks, TC is Todd Cornish at the Wyo State Vet Lab, who’s been joined at the hip with Wyo G&F for so long that he’s long since lost any concept of what independent thought or research is. Pay him no mind.

    RH

    • Salle Says:

      RH,

      Good call, thanks for shedding light on the purposeful annonimity of the TC post! Touche!

      Quite frankly, I have been observing this long-term drought effect for a couple decades on a personal level as I forage for medicinal and edible herbs on a regular basis throughout the GYA and find it ever more difficult to do and far shorter seasons for many of the plants I seek. I often think about how the wildlife cope with the same issue given that this is what they have to survive on/in.

      I’m glad that the study has revealed these factors and I feel somewhat vindicated by the these preliminary results and thankful that it was funded by those whom TC has mentioned. I hope they learn something positive from it though I don’t expect them to.

    • JEFF E Says:

      Oh shit, now he has tapeworms

    • Salle Says:

      …not to mention brucellosis and chronic wasting disease… maybe that’s… oh never mind

  5. mikepost Says:

    We have all 3 species of elk in California and they exhibit no real migration tendencies at all. This is probably due to the relatively mild climate and narrow spreads from max heat to max cold. Even where we have hot summer valleys and snow covered peaks at 12000′ we do not see the classic migration patterns discussed here in our Rockies and Roosies. Tule elk (almost an alien species of elk by comparison) in fact are happy to sit out in the sun in the middle of August at 102F and live life. This would seem to support the idea that warming may curb the impulse/need to migrate in elevation.

  6. WM Says:

    From the Article:
    ++Predators do play a role in elk numbers, and Middleton said that migratory elk are likely to be hit harder than sedentary ones. He noted that Yellowstone National Park reports growing numbers of grizzly bears, which prey considerably upon elk calves, as well as elk-hunting wolves. The park protects predators from hunters, but where the nonmigratory elk summer, predators get killed if they menace livestock.++

    [ NOT SURE I UNDERSTAND THIS PARAGRAPH COMPLETLETELY]

    ++So the elk migration flunks on two counts, Middleton said. It provides neither seasonal food bonanzas nor relief, even temporarily, from predators.++

    Maybe I am oversimplifying this, but won’t predators take the same total amount of elk to meet their nutritioal requirements, whether the elk are migratory or not. It would seem they would just be taken from different elk populations at different locations – whether the predator is griz, black bear or wolf. Populations of these predators are on the increase. If that is the case, then the comment about elk migration “flunking on this count” is really kind of stupid. If the migrant elk take the hit, the non-migratory won’t.

    Maybe the author missed something in summarizing the study so far, or there is more going on than the study framework can take into account.

    And then there is the obseravation that migrating elk are having lower pregnancy rates, as Middleton concludes (lower nutrition). Aren’t there other studies that have concluded that it is wolves chasing the elk that are responsible for lower pregnancy rates, AND lower birth weights and weaker calves, making it easier for the bears early on, and resulting in fewer calves making it to recruitment age?

    It is complex stuff and the summary of this study in this article raises more questions than it answers, in my view.

  7. Salle Says:

    “And then there is the obseravation that migrating elk are having lower pregnancy rates, as Middleton concludes (lower nutrition). Aren’t there other studies that have concluded that it is wolves chasing the elk that are responsible for lower pregnancy rates, AND lower birth weights and weaker calves, making it easier for the bears early on, and resulting in fewer calves making it to recruitment age?

    I’m not sure there has been any formal research into that concept set. Perhaps some folks think these ideas have emerged from formal research but I strongly suspect that these above mentioned concepts are the result of biased speculation and used as rhetoric to sway those who share these biases and believe that if you say something loud enough and often enough it becomes truth… not science, well maybe under the heading of social psychology…

    There are some inconsistencies in the article and they should be addressed by the researcher(s) through the same methodologies for the sake of validity.

    It is complex stuff and the summary of this study in this article raises more questions than it answers, in my view.”

  8. WM Says:

    Salle,

    ++I’m not sure there has been any formal research into that concept set. Perhaps some folks think these ideas have emerged from formal research but I strongly suspect that these above mentioned concepts are the result of biased speculation and used as rhetoric to sway those who share these biases and believe that if you say something loud enough and often enough it becomes truth…++

    Let’s examine your comment above. I know there has been research on the topic.

    The reference to the study below by Professor Scott Creel at Montana State hits on some of the points I made earlier, and indeed the effects of predation risk on reproduction rates and calf survival have been and are continuing to be studied:

    http://www.montana.edu/wwwbi/staff/creel/PNAS%20elk%20GC%20and%20risk.pdf

    And, if you scroll down on his web page there are more.
    http://www.montana.edu/wwwbi/staff/creel/creel.html

    It doesn’t mean the questions have all been answered, however.

    ————–
    Here is another from Mark Hebblewhite at U of Montana:

    http://www.cfc.umt.edu/HebLab/PDFS/EC_Hebblewhite&Merrill_ElkRisk-ForageTrade-offs_2009.pdf

    His CV and other studies are available at:
    http://www.cfc.umt.edu/HebLab/Publications.html

    If I recall correctly Dr. Hebblewhite is currently doing work for the state of MT on predator – prey relationships (including a migratory element – he is big on collaring elk), under a project headed by Kelly Proffitt, who replaced Ken Hamblin at MT FWP. Dr. Hebblewhite has a fair amount of experience in this.

    Here is a quick announcement piece on the Bitterroot elk study which is just beginning. Hard to tell if much will address climate change, but since habitat, migration, reproduction, and predation are key issues, climate effects (the prolonged droughts for example and any effects on migration) would seem to be hard to ignore :

    http://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/article_cd587916-3881-11df-bdfe-001cc4c002e0.html

    Maybe there is a study outline now available.


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