Study Finds Human Activity Affects Elk Interactions

Feb 17, 2021

Elk during the winter at the National Elk Refuge.
Credit Fish and Wildlife Service

A new study finds that human interference affects how much elk interact with each other.

U.S. Geological Survey biologist Will Janousek said that interaction can be dangerous.

"One of the things that affects how disease spreads is the amount of grouping in a population among individuals," he said. "For wild ungulates like elk, they group up naturally in the winter months, but the specific things that drive that grouping behavior are less well understood."

Janousek and his team used GPS collars to track when elk came in contact with each other on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole. Then they compared that to activity on the refuge like supplemental feeding.

Janousek said that extra food had the largest effect.

"When feeding is occurring, your average pair of elk would spend about one third of the day together," he said. "When feeding wasn't occurring, they would only spend about one tenth of the day together."

On the other hand, Janousek said hunting led to about 20 percent less grouping.

He said this information will help with management on the refuge, and their technique can be used to study similar effects in other animals.

Have a question about this story? Please contact the reporter, Ashley Piccone, at apiccone@uwyo.edu.