Simone Ciuti has been monitoring elk movements from the US border to the Livingstone Range using recent developments with GPS radiotelemetry. New advanced technology allows the collection of a large amount of high-quality information about elk spatial behaviour, such as the accurate location of more than 150 elk (error < 10 m) every 2 hours. Simone also carried out behavioural observations of elk herds in areas of SW Alberta affected by different degrees of human disturbance. Disentangling how human impact affects wildlife and understanding how to improve management and conservation of wildlife populations are primary goals of his research.
- Effect of vehicle traffic on elk behaviour. Elk may be more vigilant near human disturbance, resulting in decreased forage intake and reduced reproductive success. We collected year-round behavioural data of elk across land-management types across a range of human disturbances. We found that human factors (land-use type, traffic and distance from roads) and elk herd size accounted for more than 80% of variability in elk vigilance. Elk decreased their feeding time when closer to roads. Road traffic volumes of at least 1 vehicle every 2 hours induced elk to switch into a more vigilant behavioural mode with a subsequent loss in feeding time. Other factors though crucial in shaping vigilance behaviour in elk (e.g., natural predators, reproductive status of females) were not important. The highest levels of vigilance were recorded on public lands where hunting and motorized recreational activities were cumulative compared to the national park during summer, which had the lowest levels of vigilance. In a human-dominated landscape, effects of human disturbance on elk behaviour exceed those of habitat and natural predators. Humans trigger increased vigilance and decreased foraging in elk. However, it is not just the number of people but also the type of human activity that influences elk behaviour (e.g. hiking vs. hunting). Empirical studies suggest that a high disturbance rate can modify the elk behaviour by increasing the time spent being vigilant and significantly reducing daily feed intake, with negative consequences for female reproductive success and population dynamics. Assessment of these effects will allow the development of sound management and conservation policies for elk in North America.
Published on PLOS ONE:
Ciuti S, Northrup JM, Muhly TB, Simi S, Musiani M, Pitt AJ, Boyce MS (2012) Effects of humans on behaviour of wildlife exceed those of natural predators in a landscape of fear. PLOS ONE
Researchers performing behavioural observations of elk in different areas of SW Alberta (Bob creek provincial park and private lands around Pincher Creek).
- How elk elude hunters. See the popular article published on the Alberta Outdoorsmen Magazine about this study (click here) and find out how elk can adopt individual spatial anti-predator strategies that can increase their survival during the hunting season. Harvesting of animals by humans can result in selection of particular behavioural traits. Our satellite telemetry study in the Canadian Rockies of elk whose individual personalities had been characterized as bold or shy indicated that human hunters are more likely to take out bold individuals, with the potential to evoke evolutionary change.
Elk herd scanning the landscape to detect potential predators and other sources of disturbance along the border of the Waterton lakes NP.
Published on the Proceedings of the Royal Society B:
Ciuti S, Muhly TB, Paton GD, McDevitt AD, Musiani M, Boyce MS. (2012). Human selection of elk behavioural traits in a landscape of fear. Proceedings of the Royal Society, B, 279:4407-4416.
All collared elk captured up to 2012 have now been analyzed at 28 variable genetic markers. These genetic markers allow us to accurately measure relatedness between individuals and to infer gene flow/past movement between herds. Preliminary analysis has revealed that all individuals/herds belong to a single genetic unit, suggesting that ongoing gene flow between herds is being maintained. However, there is evidence that more northerly herds are somewhat separated from southerly herds. This may be caused by geographic isolation but could also be caused by landscape barriers in between, possibly natural or human influenced (such as Highway 3) features, perhaps both.
Ongoing analyses are examining the roles of individual landscape features and behaviour on determining gene flow and genetic structure of elk in Southwest Alberta. This will be achieved by combining genetic data with spatial data from GPS collars and habitat data. The results of this will ultimately help us disentangle the effects of a multitude of factors involved in determining genetic structure in an important game species in Alberta.
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My study will identify elk herds in SW Alberta which consist of migratory phenotypes of elk and the characteristics of the elk migration route. Connectivity between season ranges is expected to be important to maintaining migration. The loss of connectivity for wildlife across landscapes worldwide has led researchers to investigate the effects of habitat fragmentation and human disturbance to migrations of animals traversing tens to hundreds of kilometers. Migration events are expected to be an ecological necessity for the existence of migrating populations and meta-populations, often essential to population genetics and allowing for increased access to resources for far-ranging species. Elk migration is an adaptive behavioral strategy that evolved to avoid constraints on resource availability in temperate regions. Movement to seasonal mountain ranges allows elk to follow elevation gradients tracking optimal patches of nutrient rich vegetation for an extended time period, enhancing fitness and reproduction. In turn, elk contribute to ecosystems function by their grazing pressure on plants and influence on soil dynamics.
In my study area blocking or reducing connectivity of migratory movement routes could result in elk spending more time on wintering grounds located on private lands than traditional ranges on provincial forest reserves. This in turn could cause changes in distribution or increased elk and land owner conflicts from crop depredation and result in ecological losses due to over grazing, affect calving or potentially reduce fitness of elk. Elk undertaking migration may also be less vulnerable to predators.
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Migration routes are not well known for the Castle-Carbondale herd. Using Global Positioning Systems (GPS) collars, elk were tracked for a two year period over a 4 year study acquiring relocation points every 2 hours. We use an investigative framework applying the Brownian bridge movement model to delineate the population migration network for a subpopulation of partially migratory elk. Our analyses will use migration GPS data to identify elk stopover areas which are expected to be important to elk for increasing body condition, resting and the movement corridors between these habitat patches during migration. With this ecological knowledge of migration, managers will have fundamental data for conservation of migrating elk herds in SW Alberta.
See the article published on Alberta Outdoorsmen Magazine about this study
Mathieu Pruvot is looking at 5 livestock production limiting diseases that are known to be present and important in Alberta (Bovine viral diarrhea, Infectious bovine rhinotracheitis, Neosporosis, Johne’s disease and liver flukes). These pathogens are representative of different transmission routes in order to figure out what type of pathogen may be transmitted between cows and elk.
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Mathieu has finished his fieldwork in soutwestern Alberta. In complement of the samples collected during the elk captures, he collected elk droppings from different elk herds exposed or unexposed to cattle (in agreement with landowners when necessary). By comparing these different herds, he will assess the effect of elk interactions with cattle. Similarly, he also sampled cows in 2 groups of 15 ranches that are exposed or unexposed to elk. Questionnaire and interview also collected the necessary information to interprete the results.
The samples were processed at the laboratory of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine-University of Calgary, and the results will then be analysed to assess the effect of cattle-elk comingling on the circulation of these pathogens.
Further analysis and modelling techniques are being used to test the hypothesis that only certain types of transmission route can occur at the interface between cattle and elk.