Is the migratory behavior of montane elk herds in Peril? The case of Alberta's Ya Ha Tinda elk herd

Mark Hebblewhite, Evelyn H. Merrill, Luigi E. Morgantini, Clifford A. White, James R. Allen, Eldon Bruns, Linda Thurston, Tomas E. Hurd

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

61 Scopus citations


There is growing concern that populations of migratory ungulates are declining globally. Causes of declines in migratory behavior can be direct (i.e., differential harvest of migrants) or indirect (i.e., habitat fragmentation or land-use changes). Elk (Cervus elaphus) are an important big game species in North America whose migratory behavior is changing in some montane ecosystems. We evaluated evidence and hypotheses for changes in migratory behavior and population decline in one of Canada's largest elk populations, the Ya Ha Tinda. We compared the ratio of migrant to resident elk (M:R) in the population and seasonal spatial distributions obtained from 22 winter and 13 summer helicopter surveys between 1972 and 2005. Timing of migration and the summer distribution for a sample of radiocollared elk also was compared for 1977-1980 (early period) and 2001-2004 (recent). The population M:R ratio decreased from 12.4 (SD = 3.22) in the early period to 3.0 (SD = 1.63). The decrease was greater than expected based on population change. Declines in M:R also mirrored behavior of radiocollared elk. More than 49% of radiocollared elk we monitored resided near the winter range year-round by 2001-2004, and migrants were spending less time on summer ranges. We found winter range enhancements, access to hay fed to wintering horses, recolonization by gray wolves (Canis lupus), and management relocations of elk were most consistent with observed elk population growth (adjusted for harvest and removals) and the change in migratory behavior. However, we could not isolate the effects of specific factors in time-series population modeling. We believe directly relating migrant and resident demography to habitat and mortality factors will be required to understand the mechanisms affecting migratory behavior in this and other montane elk herds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1280-1294
Number of pages15
JournalWildlife Society Bulletin
Issue number5
StatePublished - Dec 2006


  • Alberta
  • Canada
  • Canis lupus
  • Cervus elaphus
  • Elk
  • Habitat enhancement
  • Habituation
  • Migrant:resident ratio
  • Migration
  • Prescribed fire
  • Winter range
  • Wolf


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