Tens of thousands of elk move in masses from low, hilly country outside Yellowstone National Park into forested mountains and high meadows.
They dot the landscape near Cody, Jackson and portions of Idaho and Montana. They spend the winter scraping by on feedgrounds and ranches, in sage brush and grassy plains. They give birth in the spring, and teach their young to follow similar paths from winter to summer and back again.
Nearly everything in and around Yellowstone National Park revolves in some way around the elk. They feed the eagles, wolves and grizzly bears so many people travel to see. They support a tourism economy through hunting and wildlife viewing that's critical to surrounding cities and towns.
Elk are a barometer of the health for the entire ecosystem, said Arthur Middleton, a Yale ecologist who is also a research associate with the Wyoming Migration Initiative at the University of Wyoming. As they change, so will other populations in and around the top quarter of the state.
But unlike many other migrations in the West, their paths are not in immediate peril.
Their ranges are largely protected by sprawling ranches and federal lands. Their numbers have adjusted to more predators, and wildlife managers have even increased hunting licenses in some areas.
“The greater Yellowstone is a relatively intact ecosystem, but even there we tend to study elk one by one or on their winter range or summer range,” Middleton said. “We tend to take a fragmented approach, even in our heads. We tend to study these migrations according to jurisdictional or administrative boundaries.”
Middleton wants to look at the entire ecosystem including when grass greens, where and when elk migrate and how climate change could alter their habits.
But first, he and other researchers need a baseline. Middleton and Wyoming-based National Geographic photographer Joe Riis received a $100,000 grant in February from the Camp Monaco Prize started by the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Draper Natural History Museum, the University of Wyoming’s Biodiversity Institute and the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation-USA. They will spend two to three years studying elk in the greater Yellowstone area.
They started tracking the Cody elk herd in March with GPS collars that send signals every 45 minutes, giving the researchers precise locations along the animals' entire journey. Riis will set cameras along routes, recording the migration for both scientists and the public. In the end, Middleton and Riis should be able to map the herd’s path by time and location.
Middleton will also collect all existing information for other herds in the Yellowstone area gathered by myriad groups including the Wyoming and Montana wildlife agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park services, and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“Am I worried a migratory population is going to go extinct in this immediate area? I don’t think so,” he said. “But we’re kind of fortunate here. In other places not too far away, including other areas of the West, there aren’t even migrations to study to understand what might change it down the road.”
Middleton wants to understand how and why the massive elk migrations work. He also wants to know how much flexibility elk have in changing the way they migrate -- if leaving earlier, for example, would help or hurt their numbers.
Yellowstone National Park serves as a melting pot for the handful of elk herds surrounding the area, said Doug McWhirter, wildlife biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
“They mix on the summer range and go to different winter ranges,” he said. “To me the juxtaposition of the protected areas like Yellowstone, the National Forest and (Bureau of Land Management) and super, super important private lands. The migrations show these animals make use of all of that and need all of that.”
Each herd migrates between 30 and 100 miles between their winter and summer ranges, Middleton said.
Riis will set camera traps along the migration route for the Cody elk herd to show the scientists and the public how and when the animals move. The images and information will not only help people better understand the importance of elk migration, but may allow Game and Fish to monitor the herds remotely without costly and potentially dangerous survey flights, Middleton said.
And all of the information will ultimately help wildlife managers like McWhirter better understand, and plan, for Wyoming’s critical elk migrations.