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To forage or flee: Lessons from an elk migration near a protected area

April 11, 2019

Alteration of wide-ranging wildlife migrations can drastically impact the structure and function of ecosystems, yet the causes and consequences of shifting migration patterns remain largely unknown. Management decisions made in one portion of a landscape may induce spatial and temporal shifts of wildlife use in another, creating tension among private, state, and federal lands with varying missions. Recent declines in migratory behavior have initiated studies focused primarily on spring migration, but the timing and benefits of autumn migration have received limited attention due to the difficulty in assessing the extreme asynchrony in autumnal events, although nutrition during this time period is crucial to winter survival and reproduction. Here, we used five years of data from 73 female elk (Cervus canadensis) which utilize a landscape managed by 4 federal agencies, a state, and private landowners, to identify the driving factors behind the initiation of fall migration in two subpopulations, one of which migrates to a protected area where hunting is prohibited. Most elk departed summer range prior to frost or snow, with 67% of elk that used the protected area migrating prior to the onset of archery hunting season (1 September), preemptively avoiding risk, while no elk from the other subpopulation left prior to archery season. However, departure from productive summer range prior to frost or snow, nearly two months before vegetation senescence led to an important tradeoff. Early migrants gave up 0.30% of late summer-fall integrated NDVI (iNDVI) per day when they moved to the safety of the protected area, leading to an average difference of 15.81% in iNDVI between an individual departing on 30 August (the mean departure date) versus an individual departing on 1 November. Our results suggest that in areas where migratory ungulates span multiple jurisdictions, the benefits of migratory behavior may be dramatically impacted by unevenly distributed anthropogenic disturbance. As this is a common scenario globally, our work highlights the urgent need to improve our understanding of subtle changes in migratory behavior, both spatially and temporally, which may erode the resilience of migration to future change.

Publication Year 2019
Title To forage or flee: Lessons from an elk migration near a protected area
DOI 10.1002/ecs2.2693
Authors Nathaniel Mikle, Tabitha A. Graves, Edward M. Olexa
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Ecosphere
Index ID 70203052
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center