Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Transboundary Research by Kevin Whalen

The Unit model facilitates opportunities for working across state lines (transboundary and large landscape research). This approach is increasingly important due to the increasing complexity of natural resource management whereby problems often cannot be solved in one state alone or require a broad understanding of the true population level effects to appropriately manage at the local scale.

One highly successful example of this is the Western Elk Research Collaborative (WERC). WERC was the original idea of a cooperator with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. The cooperator was aware that multiple western states had collected a lot of data on elk and that while these data were limited in spatial and temporal scope, a broader picture could be developed if the states were willing to pool their data.  Federal scientists from the Wyoming and Montana Cooperative Research Units took on the role of facilitating the effort and were able to get seven total states on board: some more willingly than others. By all reports, the collaborative has been tremendously fruitful. From a management perspective, the Northwestern states have never communicated as much with each other or collaborated more. Indeed, all the state participants in WERC cite this as one of the best outcomes of the group.

Scientifically, the group is accomplishing far more than any one elk research project can. Given changes in habitat and predator communities over the course of the huge data set assembled, inferences on elk ecology and management are available that were previously impossible. Additionally, the temporal span of the data set allows researchers to ask meaningful questions about climate change. Several papers relative to this are already published or in the works, with the next step being the grand unification theory of elk demography and life history. The Unit model facilitated the participation of many states which was essential to the success off the WERC. In summary, the WERC is a tremendous success story of managers and scientists working across state boundaries to address some very timely and challenging management issues, and one that while non-traditional, is facilitated by the Unit model.

Image: Two Bull Elk Fighting in a Lake
Two bull elk fighting in a lake.

Opportunities for Cooperative Conservation – the Cooperative Research Units as a Network

Transboundary research and the example provided above of the WERC is an excellent example of how the CRU can enable a broad-scale research project that is consistent with the state focus of the Unit model. In the WERC, example one Unit (Montana Wildlife) served as the focal point for collating state information, using its natural CRU connection to western states for defining a holistic approach to elk demography and life history. In other cases, multiple Units may work together as a network to address issues, species, or habitat conservation issues affecting multiple states (e.g., woodrats, warblers, blackbass). The management community, led by the USFWS and the States, has long recognized the necessity of state-independent approaches to regional conservation for fish and wildlife populations. Prominent examples include the Flyway Management Councils for the continental management of waterfowl, Joint Ventures for different species and habitats, and most recently the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives which focus conservation within a large geographical area.

Golden-winged Warbler at a stopover site during fall migration
Golden-winged Warbler at a stopover site during fall migration                 

Considering Units as a network is directly in line with these species and ecosystem — or  landscape-based management initiatives. The Unit model which naturally links shared Federal-state priorities and science-based conservation goals is a natural vehicle for achieving cooperative conservation at regional and landscape scales. The Units, working jointly with their state and Federal cooperators have contributed science to help guide management and conservation of many key populations and habitats. Because each Unit is locally governed and supported, a balance must be struck between enabling full Unit discretion for research directions and the potential needs of National programs, including USGS, when considering the Units’ potential as a “research network.”

Trees on edge of river in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
Leaves changing color in autumn at the edge of a river in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming (2016).