Plasticity in elk migration timing is a response to changing environmental conditions

Global Change Biology
By: , and 



Migration is an effective behavioral strategy for prolonging access to seasonal resources and may be a resilient strategy for ungulates experiencing changing climatic conditions. In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), elk are the primary ungulate, with approximately 20,000 individuals migrating to exploit seasonal gradients in forage while also avoiding energetically costly snow conditions. How climate-induced changes in plant phenology and snow accumulation are influencing elk migration timing is unknown. We present the most complete record of elk migration across the GYE, spanning 9 herds and 414 individuals from 2001 to 2017, to evaluate the drivers of migration timing and test for temporal shifts. The timing of elk departure from winter range involved a trade-off between current and anticipated forage conditions, while snow melt governed summer range arrival date. Timing of elk departure from summer range and arrival on winter range were both influenced by snow accumulation and exposure to hunting. At the GYE scale, spring and fall migration timing changed through time, most notably with winter range arrival dates becoming almost 50 days later since 2001. Predicted herd-level changes in migration timing largely agreed with observed GYE-wide changes—except for predicted winter range arrival dates which did not reflect the magnitude of change detected in the elk telemetry data. Snow melt, snow accumulation, and spring green-up dates all changed through time, with different herds experiencing different rates and directions of change. We conclude that elk migration is plastic, is a direct response to environmental cues, and that these environmental cues are not changing in a consistent manner across the GYE. The impacts of changing elk migration timing on predator–prey dynamics, carnivore–livestock conflict, disease ecology, and harvest management across the GYE are likely to be significant and complex.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Plasticity in elk migration timing is a response to changing environmental conditions
Series title Global Change Biology
DOI 10.1111/gcb.14629
Volume 25
Issue 7
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Alaska Science Center Biology WTEB, Coop Res Unit Seattle
Description 14 p.
First page 2368
Last page 2381
Country United States
State Idaho, Montana, Wyoming
Other Geospatial Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
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