Elk NetworkStudy: ‘Humans Can Function as a Shield’ for Elk

General | March 7, 2024

It is like a predator-prey-human chess match.

The prey is the elk population of northeast Washington. The predators are mountain lions and wolves in the same region. And the surrounding human population plays its own role in this dynamic, especially when it comes to elk seeking security, so says a collaborative study by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and University of Washington.

“They’re using us and those areas as a shield against predators that wouldn’t want to be close to humans,” Melia DeVivo, WDFW biologist and study co-author, told the Spokesman Review.

Researchers gathered telemetry data between 2017 and 2021 from 63 elk, 42 mountain lions and 16 wolves, all outfitted with GPS collars. They found elk move around to reduce their encounters with predators where and when they would be the largest threat. They avoided mountain lions at night but had a near-neutral response during the day and always avoided wolves.

Elk also stayed away from humans during the daylight but “moved toward higher human footprint areas at night,” especially in the summer compared to the fall, “perhaps reducing the risk of wolf predation for vulnerable calves via a human shield,” according to the study.

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation provided grant funding to help with the study. Since 1985, RMEF and its partners completed 782 conservation and hunting heritage outreach projects in Washington with a combined value of more than $134.3 million. These projects conserved or enhanced 514,212 acres of habitat and opened or improved public access to 130,661 acres.

(Photo credit: Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation)