Elk NetworkStudy: the Changing Migration Behavior of Elk

General | May 18, 2023

A new study, supported in part by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation shows elk change their migratory ways from year to year.

Researchers followed the movement patterns and behavior of 316 elk in 20 herds within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) over 14 years. They found most elk (53.7 percent) were short-distance migrants while 21.9 percent were elevational migrants, 19.6 percent were long-distance migrants and a mere 4.8 percent basically stayed in the same place.

Looking at the bigger picture, 18 of the 20 herds were partially migratory and five included all four movement patterns. Even then, migratory behavior changed from year to year.

“We observed switches between migratory tactics in all sets of consecutive years during our study period, with an average of 22.5% of individual elk changing movement tactics from one year to the next,” the study stated.

The data also showed elk with a greater propensity to move were more likely to deal with poor environmental conditions compared to those that stayed more static.

“Our findings suggest that rather than contributing to the declining migratory behavior found in the GYE, switching behavior may enable greater resiliency to continuously changing environmental and anthropogenic conditions,” the study stated.

(Photo credit: Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation)