Professor continues world’s longest elk study


UM elk study 

MISSOULA – University of Montana ungulate habitat ecology Associate Professor Mark Hebblewhite recently received a $435,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue a 15-year study of migratory elk in Alberta, Canada.

Since 2001 Hebblewhite and co-principal investigator Evelyn Merrill of the University of Alberta have collared and tracked more than 500 elk in one of the longest-running field research projects on the species.

By monitoring this large herd over their lifespans – through reproduction, migration and survival – this long-term study provides clues on why elk migrate, how their migrations change, the role of predators like wolves and grizzly bears on elk populations, and the effects of fire, logging, climate change and management actions, such as hunting, on the herd.

Additionally, 10 graduate students have worked on the project and hundreds of undergraduate students from both UM and University of Alberta have learned about elk and ungulate migration through the study. One former graduate student, Scott Eggeman, now is employed with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area.

Hebblewhite also will work with students in the UM School of Journalism and UM’s geography department to provide information to the public in innovative ways.

The Ya Ha Tinda elk herd is well-known regionally because it lives in and just outside Banff National Park. The elk winter outside the park and then move into the park in the spring where they remain through fall. The region is also important as a trophy hunting area – the largest bull elk registered in Canada was harvested there decades ago. 

Hebblewhite said he hopes the continued funding will shed light on why fewer of these elk migrate and what impact this loss of migration has on the overall elk population, as well as other migratory elk through the West.

“This long-term study has given us unparalleled insights into the lives of these long-lived animals,” Hebblewhite said. “Elk can live up to 20 years or more in the wild, and often our studies are too short term to really figure out what makes elk tick, why they migrate, why their populations change and how we as humans affect them. But it’s also impossible to study every elk population everywhere forever, which is why this funding will continue to ensure our long-term project provides valuable information to manage elk everywhere.”

NSF funded Hebblewhite’s study under its Long-Term Research in Environmental Biology program. Additional research support comes from hunting groups, Parks Canada, Alberta Fish and Wildlife, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

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