Predation risk drives long-term shifts in migratory behaviour and demography in a large herbivore population

S. Williams, M. Hebblewhite, H. Martin, C. Meyer, J. Whittington, J. Killeen, J. Berg, K. MacAulay, P. Smolko, E. H. Merrill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Migration is an adaptive life-history strategy across taxa that helps individuals maximise fitness by obtaining forage and avoiding predation risk. The mechanisms driving migratory changes are poorly understood, and links between migratory behaviour, space use, and demographic consequences are rare. Here, we use a nearly 20-year record of individual-based monitoring of a large herbivore, elk (Cervus canadensis) to test hypotheses for changing patterns of migration in and adjacent to a large protected area in Banff National Park (BNP), Canada. We test whether bottom-up (forage quality) or top-down (predation risk) factors explained trends in (i) the proportion of individuals using 5 different migratory tactics, (ii) differences in survival rates of migratory tactics during migration and whilst on summer ranges, (iii) cause-specific mortality by wolves and grizzly bears, and (iv) population abundance. We found dramatic shifts in migration consistent with behavioural plasticity in individual choice of annual migratory routes. Shifts were inconsistent with exposure to the bottom-up benefits of migration. Instead, exposure to landscape gradients in predation risk caused by exploitation outside the protected area drove migratory shifts. Carnivore exploitation outside the protected area led to higher survival rates for female elk remaining resident or migrating outside the protected area. Cause-specific mortality aligned with exposure to predation risk along migratory routes and summer ranges. Wolf predation risk was higher on migratory routes than summer ranges of montane-migrant tactics, but wolf predation risk traded-off with heightened risk from grizzly bears on summer ranges. A novel eastern migrant tactic emerged following a large forest fire that enhanced forage in an area with lower predation risk outside of the protected area. The changes in migratory behaviour translated to population abundance, where abundance of the montane-migratory tactics declined over time. The presence of diverse migratory life histories maintained a higher total population abundance than would have been the case with only one migratory tactic in the population. Our study demonstrates the complex ways in which migratory populations change over time through behavioural plasticity and associated demographic consequences because of individuals balancing predation risk and forage trade-offs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)21-35
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Animal Ecology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2024


  • elk
  • migration route
  • partial migration
  • predation risk
  • survival
  • ungulate
  • Predatory Behavior
  • Herbivory
  • Ursidae
  • Deer
  • Animals
  • Wolves
  • Ecosystem
  • Female
  • Animal Migration
  • Seasons
  • Population Dynamics


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