Elk: Born To Run
Science has proven what seasoned hunters have known for centuries—get away from the crowds and your odds of filling an elk tag skyrocket
A legion of scatological scientists are helping us become better elk hunters.
In 2014, a team of researchers set out to determine the effects of human encroachment on the health of elk herds in eastern Washington. This research required scientists to spend time in the field at three different locations with varying levels of human activity, but the researchers were not looking for the elk themselves. They were searching for elk droppings.
The team was testing the levels of fecal glucocorticoid metabolites (FGMs), in elk scat. FGMs reveal adrenal activity—the presence of stress hormones. And since collecting droppings is a non-invasive way to test stress levels (as opposed to, say, capturing elk and drawing blood), scientists could determine how much human activity acted affected elk herds.
The results, published in 2015 in Wildlife Biology in Practice, were telling. Of the three test sites, the area with the highest level of human activity showed increased levels of FGMs. Since the study was conducted year-round, the team could monitor how a variety of factors, including climate and food availability, affected stress levels, and the conclusion was simple: Humans are the primary cause of stress in elk herds.
What does this mean for hunters? This info will help biologists plan for healthier management, but there’s a clear takeaway for those who want to fill an elk tag—get as far away from other humans as possible while hunting.
Get Off the Trail
The findings were just one piece of the puzzle, and over the past five years we’ve learned more than ever about the ways in which elk seek to stay as far away from humans as possible. A research paper published in Forest Ecology and Management in 2018 examined how elk respond to humans during their annual spring and fall migrations in Oregon. Both bulls and cows avoided roads, and this response was more pronounced in the fall during daylight hours—which corresponded with hunting season. That study showed elk exhibit the strongest avoidance to ATV trails, and that was followed by mountain bike trails. In another study, conducted in Norway on the elk’s close relative the European red deer—red stag, particularly males, showed a very strong aversion to mountain bike trails. The data in Oregon indicated that hiking and horseback riding also caused elk to avoid trails, but the elk did not stay as far away from that activity as they do roads used by ATVs and mountain bikes.
A 2016 study showed that a proliferation of roads has a “substantial and multifaceted negative effect on elk movement and behavior.”
These studies don’t indicate that all elk avoid roads at all times, and there is certainly the potential that herds in other areas are less sensitive to human pressure, but these findings strongly indicate if you want to find elk you need to get as far away from competing hunters—and the roads they use to access hunting areas—as possible.
MORE VITAL THAN FOOD
Perhaps the most telling of all the current research was published in the journal Ecosphere in 2017. In that study, scientists followed the Castle-Carbondale elk herd in southern Alberta during their annual spring and fall migrations. The test was broken down into four separate time periods: spring daylight, spring night, fall daylight, and fall night, and scientists tracked the elk using telemetry collars to examine where the animals were during each period. In that study, bulls and cows reduced their movement, made use of dense forest cover and avoided roads during the spring and fall. During daylight hours in fall, when hunters were in the woods, all elk—but bull elk in particular—radically changed their behaviors to avoid human contact. In fact, bull elk in that study spent virtually all of the fall daylight hours in dense forests and moved very little, feeding considerably less than they did during daylight hours in the spring migration period.
During fall nights, however, those bulls emerged from dense forests and spent 90 percent of their time in open areas, which indicates that bull elk in the Castle-Carbondale herd have developed a strategy to avoid contact with humans during the fall hunting season—even if that means spending less time foraging and potentially packing on less fat for the lean winter months. Staying away from humans is more vital to the elk than eating. But that study hinted at the fact that bull and cow elk use different strategies for avoiding humans. In the Castle-Carbondale study, cow elk were more often found in the steepest terrain while bulls favored dense forests. A different study that took place the same year also showed cow elk favored steep ground, especially as they matured.
The takeaway for hunters should be elk avoid roads and people, and the answer to bagging more elk is to get farther away from roads.
HOW FAR IS FAR?
The Castle-Carbondale study measured how far elk stayed away from roads during their migration routes. And, not surprisingly, elk (bulls in particular) stayed as far away from roads of any kind as possible. The test parameters measured elk movement at distances of 500 to 2,000 meters from established roads and elk use increased in relation to distance from roads out to the maximum of 2,000 meters during the fall months. Since the study parameters extended to only 2,000 meters it’s possible (likely, even) that the trend continues at 3,000, 4,000, and 5,000 meters. What’s more, elk stayed farther away from roads during daylight hours in the fall than at any time of year, and this was particularly true of bulls.
It would seem obvious that the secret to killing more elk—and old, mature bull elk in particular—is to get as far away from other humans as possible. Experienced elk hunters understand that—though research on elk hunters paints a very different picture of what’s going on in the woods during hunting season.
In a 1998 study, it was determined that elk hunters spend a quarter of their time on roadways, and that the average distance most hunters venture from these roads is just 267 meters. Since data indicates the majority of elk in hunting areas during the fall are at least 500 meters from a roadway during daylight hours, we begin to understand why hunter success rates are so low—most hunters spend their time in areas where there are essentially no elk. If you aren’t getting at least a quarter-mile away from a road, the odds are very good that you will enjoy a tag sandwich at the end of the season.
Beginning in 2006, Dr. Stephen Webb of the Noble Research Institute in Oklahoma conducted a four-year study in Colorado and New Mexico for a natural resource consulting firm in Laramie, Wyoming. Webb tracked the movements of 184 GPS-collared cow elk to determine how intense energy development influenced elk behaviors such as movement, and home range characteristics. Dr. Webb’s findings are of particular interest to hunters for several reasons. First, the research sought to determine how the total “human footprint”—the cumulative effects of all human activity, including mineral extraction, ranching, and hiking—effected cow elk survival. Secondly, the research examined how much of an impact hunting has on mortality in cow elk, and since adult female survival rates are one of the primary factors behind population number shifts in large herbivores like elk, it offered insight into how our modern hunting practices are changing the complexion of America’s elk herds.
Dr. Webb’s data showed hunters were the primary cause of mortality in female elk during the four-year study which spanned from March 2006 until Feb. 2010. Of the 184 cow elk that were collared, 39 died during the study period. Hunters harvested 26 of the 39 cows, which meant hunting was the cause of mortality for 66 percent of the elk in the study. On average, 80 percent of the cow elk in the survey survived each year, which meant hunting did not put elk populations at risk, and that despite hunting, elk numbers should continue to flourish at the current rate of off-take.
That’s on-par with much of the west: from 1968 until 2006, cow survival rates were roughly 86 percent across eight western states and Canada, so there’s no concern that hunting is causing a decline in elk populations. But the key takeaway is human hunters have become the elk’s primary predator, and in any predator-prey dynamic, the prey species will evolve.
ARE WE MAKING HERDS SMARTER?
Scientists refer to an organism’s ability to change their habits in response to external conditions as behavioral plasticity. Certain animals within a population will show more behavioral plasticity, and when animals change their habits to reduce the risk of death they survive to pass on their genes to the next generation. In other words, we can ask, have we killed most of the uneducated elk and left the warier, more cautious animals behind to breed?
That question was asked by scientists conducting research on elk in Alberta and British Columbia in 2017. The goal was to determine whether cow survival rates were affected by age—essentially, do elk learn behaviors as they mature—perhaps from other elk—that allow them to avoid hunters or to discover if hunter avoidance was innate, a product of genetic selection. Nature versus nurture in its most basic form.
That research indicated cows do show an ability to learn. In fact, the results went as far as to classify some females over the age of nine as essentially “invulnerable” to hunters. These animals had learned to stay in steep terrain and dense cover during daylight hours in the fall. Genetics also played a role in cow elk survival in this study, just as it did in a 2015 research project on the survival rates of male European red stag. In that study, male red stag that shifted their movements to dense forest cover during the hunting season were far less likely to be killed than male stags that did not move into these densely-forested areas, and that research made the case that behavioral plasticity may play a role in harvest. Stags, like elk, have a better chance of surviving hunting season when they avoid humans and stick to dense cover, and this ability to survive hunting season increases with age. Elk are getting smarter with each passing generation, and hunters need to adapt to be successful.
Know Thy Hunter
Ultimately, the debate between learned and innate elk behavior is best left to scientists. For hunters, the studies make one thing clear—if you’re going to consistently harvest elk, especially mature bull elk, you need to hunt them in the right places. In doing so, you should spend time not just scouting elk but also learning the habits of elk hunters.
That begins by using technology. If you’ve drawn an elk tag in a particular unit you need to look at an aerial photo of the area to determine how you can get as far away from competing hunters as possible. Forest Service maps will also help because they provide insight into where competing hunters will be concentrating their efforts. This means you’ll need to locate the areas where elk are more likely to be because they’ll experience less human pressure. If you fall into the “267 meters from a road” category you’ll need to evaluate just how much effort you’re willing to expend to tag a big bull. Leave the ATV (and, maybe, the mountain bike) behind and get into the most remote areas. Science tells us that if you aren’t at least a quarter-mile from the nearest road (and preferably more than that), your odds of killing a big bull diminish greatly.
Next, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the topography of the area you’ll be hunting. Cow elk showed preference for steep terrain, especially as they aged, but in at least two of these studies bull elk were shown to spend most of their time in dense forests. When you locate these areas of heavy forest far from roads you can expect to find bulls there, so that’s where your scouting should begin. While competing hunters are zipping along two-track roads on ATVs looking for elk sign, concentrate your efforts in areas that are more likely to hold bulls. Remember that bull elk move much less during hunting season than they do at other times of the year, particularly in areas of high hunting pressure, and this desire to stay put even causes elk to reduce feeding, so don’t expect a bull to come to you.
Lastly, you’ll have to consider logistics. There’s a reason so few hunters venture far off the beaten path—it’s a lot easier to sit in the truck and glass. The two least-invasive methods for getting into elk country are on foot or horseback, and you’ll have to develop a plan of how you’ll get into the deepest and most remote areas as well as how you’ll get your elk out of there if you are successful. It requires planning and legwork, but if you’re able to hunt those areas the odds of tagging an elk increase dramatically.
Science has proven what the most successful elk hunters know—that these animals are wary of human disturbance and they’re fully aware that the fall hunting season means their primary predator—humans—will be in the woods. By playing upon an elk’s avoid-humans-at-all-cost conditioning, you’ll increase the odds of success year after year.