Wide shot of a mountain range, a man in the distance

Conflict and Coexistence

CNR ecologists explore the frontier of the human-wildlife interface

The film Elk River opens with a shot of two female elk trudging up a steep, snow-dusted slope in the remote Absaroka Range, east of Yellowstone National Park. Captured by a camera trap in just the right spot, the image offers a rare and fleeting glimpse into an arduous journey made twice each year by migratory elk into and out of the park.

In the next scene, a net fired from a low-flying helicopter ensnares another elk racing across a frozen landscape. Soon she will be ready to begin her spring migration from this low-lying valley outside Yellowstone where she’s wintering, over the Absarokas’ jagged peaks, and into the high country— and relative safety—of the southeastern corner of the world’s oldest national park. 

But ecologist Arthur Middleton doesn’t know all this yet. Crouched in freshly fallen snow as he watches the helicopter follow and then overtake the elk, he awaits his chance to find out. With the elk momentarily disabled, Middleton springs into action. He and a colleague blindfold the animal and strap her legs together to immobilize her while they work. Middleton slips a black GPS collar, a bit wider than a man’s belt, over the elk’s head. He tightens and secures it, then removes the restraints and in one fluid motion steps back, pushes the animal forward, and releases his hold. The elk rises to her feet and dashes out of frame. “There she goes,” he says as he watches her flee. “We’ll start getting locations and then find out where she migrates.”

A line of migrating elk in Yellowstone

A harsh migration

What Middleton has learned by tracking the movements of this elk and dozens more members of the Cody Herd since 2014 is nothing short of incredible. Twice each year, these elk scale a series of 11,000-foot passes in the Absaroka Range. They drop and then climb 5,000 feet from peak to valley to peak, crossing swollen rivers—pregnant cows and nursing calves included—before reaching their destination on one side or the other.

A map tracking the migration of elk in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

Using existing GPS-collar data shared by many agencies and universities—and filling gaps by gathering new migration data over the course of two years—Middleton and colleagues created this map depicting the extensive movement of more than 20,000 elk in nine major herds across both public and private lands in Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Map credit below.

Even more incredible is that the physical demands of this 60-mile traverse are not, in a sense, the elks’ greatest concern. Instead, it’s the invisible and seemingly arbitrary borders they must cross along the way: fences, roads, cattle pastures, and even subdivisions. On the patchwork of public lands and private ranches in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana where many of Yellowstone’s elk—not just the Cody Herd—spend nearly half of each year, food is sparse and danger is everywhere.

In the fall, from the moment they first leave the park, the animals are hunted by humans, in addition to the usual wolves and grizzlies. When they arrive on the open prairie of the low country a couple of days or weeks later, the hunting pressure only intensifies. The elk band together in large groups in a bid to survive what Middleton describes as a “long, quiet, white, cold winter where they’re just trying to hang on.” The animals may also be harassed and hazed on their winter range by ranchers looking to avoid competition for their cattle and maximize the success of their ranch, he says.

A mutual reliance

The threats do go both ways. Elk carry a disease, brucellosis, that can be harmful to cattle and incredibly costly to ranchers. They knock down fences and eat grasses that can be valuable to hungry cattle in drought years. They attract not only wolves and bears but also trespassing hunters who can open gates and knock down fences just as easily as the elk.

Even to ranchers who may otherwise cherish elk, these are serious concerns.

And yet the elk require ranchlands to survive. “These migrations wouldn’t persist today if not for some of these big cattle ranches that have been kept intact,” says Middleton, who joined the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) last summer after finishing postdoctoral work at Yale. “Fundamentally, the space has stayed open in a lot of places, and that’s the most important thing.”

It’s just one example of how the relationship between wildlife conservation and human activity is far more nuanced than it may appear, he says. Through his research and outreach, Middleton has discovered a mutual reliance between animal and human: The elk need ranchers for winter forage, for example, while hunting guides and outfitters owe elk their livelihoods.

A man riding a horse with others following in the mountains

Professor Arthur Middleton (pictured) and wildlife photojournalist Joe Riis spent two summers tracking elk migrations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, covering more than 1,500 miles on horseback and spending weeks at a time in remote locations. 

These relationships have long been framed in terms of opposition and conflict. But Middleton, informed by what he knows about the migrations of Yellowstone’s elk, seeks a higher road. He hopes to shift the tone of the conversation toward one of cooperation and common ground—not merely for the benefit of the elk, but also for the health of what is known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and for the good of anyone who works, lives, or travels in this mostly wild part of our country. 

“A quiet carnivore recovery”

California is also poised to see growing numbers of similarly complex human-wildlife interactions, says fellow ESPM ecologist and professor Justin Brashares. The big difference is that instead of sustaining existing populations, the state’s land managers and wildlife experts are increasingly tasked with managing the return of long-suppressed predators to the landscape, including wolves, mountain lions, badgers, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and bears.

State and federal policies once incentivized the removal of these carnivores, even offering bounty payments, Brashares says. The last California grizzly, or golden bear—state animal and mascot of UC Berkeley—became a victim of such practices in 1922. The gray wolf was exterminated shortly thereafter, only to make a historic return 90 years later in the form of a single young male called OR-7, who has been followed into California by several other wolves.

What we’re seeing across the state, particularly over the last 10 years, is arguably an unprecedented recovery of our wildlife communities.
— Justin Brashares

Beginning in the 1970s with the federal Endangered Species Act and the banning of bounties, things began to change. Poisons and leghold traps were prohibited in 1998. Next came an end to the sport hunting of mountain lions in 1990, bear hunting with dogs in 2012, and bobcat trapping in 2015. The cumulative result of these actions, which eased centuries of pressure on wild animals treated as pests, has been a “quiet carnivore recovery” happening across our state, Brashares says. And depending on whom you ask, that may be a great thing or a terrible thing.

An ecologist or environmentalist might emphasize the role of carnivores in maintaining healthy ecosystems. “What we’re seeing across the state, particularly over the last 10 years, is arguably an unprecedented recovery of our wildlife communities,” Brashares notes. A livestock rancher, meanwhile, might view the development with dread. “They’re the ones most likely to be negatively impacted by the return of these animals.” A similar divide, he notes, exists between urban and rural dwellers. “Those who face the challenges of coexistence with carnivores on a day-to-day basis tend to be more negative about their return,” he says.

The rest of us tend to view the return of carnivores—particularly large, charismatic ones—much more favorably. “In more-urban communities, we often have the luxury of interacting with carnivores on our own terms, by going out and seeking them in wild settings, away from our safe living and work environments, in places like Yosemite National Park,” says Brashares. His point is well taken by anyone who has lost a dog or cat to a mountain lion, let alone by commercial ranchers trying to protect their livelihood from hungry coyotes and wolves. But even so, he says, reliance on lethal control as the primary strategy for managing predators in the state is due to become a thing of the past.

New insights into coexistence

How to behave instead is, in part, a question for science—and one that Brashares is working to answer through ongoing research at the University of California’s Hopland Research and Extension Center (HREC), in southern Mendocino County, about two hours north of Berkeley. There the university owns a 5,300-acre parcel with oak woodland, grassland, chaparral, and riparian environments—and, according to recent surveys, wildlife densities on par with those in Yellowstone and Yosemite. Linked to the massive Mendocino and Shasta-Trinity National Forests, it’s part of a corridor of undeveloped and protected land extending all the way to the Canadian border. As such, it commonly hosts coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, and black bears.

The plot is also home to more than 500 sheep, on-site since the 1950s for the study of sustainable agricultural practices. But sheep, open space, and carnivores spell conflict, and the flock has regularly suffered significant losses to coyote predation. The coyotes, in turn, have traditionally been shot on sight, in line with established wildlife management practices in agricultural settings.

Researchers looking at a flying drone

Professor Justin Brashares (center) and members of his lab utilize tagging, drones, and GPS technologies to track the movement of carnivores and their prey.

PHOTO: Jim Block.

In 2014 alone, nearly 50 lambs were killed by coyotes at HREC, and another 178 went unaccounted for. Meanwhile, 26 coyotes were killed to prevent further losses to the flock. Toward the end of the year, when Kim Rodrigues, BS ’81 Forestry; PhD ’08 ESPM, became director of HREC, she realized the current system wasn’t working and set about to fix it.

Rodrigues brought on more guard dogs and a new shepherd, improved fencing, and changed the rules about shooting coyotes and other predators. She also initiated a number of research efforts, in which Brashares now plays a lead role, to critically evaluate the effectiveness of tools like dogs, fences, and “fox lights,” which are randomly lit on the fields to scare off predators. And Brashares and Rodrigues are studying how to better use technology like GPS, drones, and tagging to understand the often-mysterious behavior and movement of carnivores and their prey, in hopes of gaining new insights for human-wildlife coexistence.

After Rodrigues instituted some of these changes, the numbers of lamb and coyote deaths at HREC began to decrease dramatically. In 2016, fewer than five lambs were believed to have been killed by coyotes, with another eight unaccounted for, and just seven coyotes were shot.

In a bid to make HREC a statewide hub for cutting-edge research and discussion around human-wildlife interactions, Rodrigues enlisted Brashares’s help in December 2015 in hosting a community conversation with stakeholders about the management of wildlife and livestock using nonlethal methods. A second discussion is planned for this June.

“My research and extension focus is now on how we can start to explore standard operating procedures that actually have a stated goal to protect both the livestock and the wildlife, and not one or the other,” Rodrigues says. “It’s changing the either/or conundrum to thinking about how we really value both on the landscapes that we’re managing.”

The importance of informal social connections

Elk River, a 30-minute film that premiered last year, is currently on the festival circuit and has just been released by National Geographic through its online Short Film Showcase. The documentary is replete with vivid shots of migrating elk amid Yellowstone’s breathtaking scenery. But to those familiar with the workings of this landscape, it’s the scenes in which Middleton chats with local ranchers and guides that resonate most.

Men and dogs around a campfire

After a long day on the mountain, Middleton (left) confers with local guides (and brothers) Wes and Lee Livingston.

In one such scene, he and the film crew—including collaborator and photographer Joe Riis, responsible for setting and retrieving the remote camera traps that capture, for the first time, high-quality video of elk migrating over the Absarokas—set up camp in the mountains outside the park with local guides (and brothers) Lee and Wes Livingston: tall, slender, rugged Wyoming cowboys sporting identical Stetson hats and thick brown mustaches.

Interacting with the elk is a year-round activity, explains Wes. “I love to go see the elk in the spring, and then we follow them through the summer. When we take our pack trips, we show people these beautiful herds of elk up on the high-alpine meadows, grazing. In the fall, we rely on the elk for the hunting season. In the wintertime, I capture elk using a net gun from a helicopter and put collars on them for this research project here.”

Reflecting on Livingston’s comments now, Middleton stresses the value that informal social connections have for his research. “One of the more important aspects of my work is understanding not just the ecological system but also the human landscape in which it’s now embedded,” he says. “There are things that you can learn from people around a fire in the backcountry that you’re simply not going to learn in the way that we communicate in the world today.”

Not that he eschews modern-day methods of communication. In fact, the film itself is more than just a record of his work; it’s a critical component of Middleton’s mission to raise public awareness. With Riis, he conceived the idea, raised the funds, and produced the film, hiring director Jenny Nichols. The project grew out of a competitive $100,000 prize awarded to him and Riis in 2013.

There are things that you can learn from people around a fire in the backcountry that you’re simply not going to learn in the way that we communicate in the world today.
— Arthur Middleton

The pair also created a traveling museum exhibit on the elk-migration phenomenon called Invisible Boundaries—it ran last year at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, and the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC, and is headed to the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University next—and engaged artist James Prosek, whose paintings of Yellowstone wildlife appear in both projects.

In addition, Middleton partnered with National Geographic on a special issue dedicated to Yellowstone. He has even penned op-eds for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal on other aspects of human-wildlife conflict.

But when it comes to public outreach, perhaps Middleton’s greatest challenge awaits back in Wyoming, where last August he worked with the Western Landowners Alliance to cohost a three-day symposium on human-wildlife conflicts—primarily between ranchers and elk—within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Its title, “Ranchers and Scientists Exploring Solutions for the Future,” was a nod to Middleton’s intent to move beyond the same old discourse. “It’s so easy for this to all get sucked down into 100 debates about different aspects of the problem,” he says. “A big motivation for me has been to bring the wonder back into this conversation, so that we can build an identity around important ecological and cultural values in the ecosystem. People want to solve these problems, and I want to help.”

Their conversation is ongoing—a workshop on invasive plants was held in March—and could continue for years or even decades. Middleton is willing to stay the course: “Personally I’ve started to believe that these elk migrations are the heartbeat, the pulse of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” he says, “and I want to spend the rest of my life being a part of it.”

Watch Elk River

Elk River is available online as part of the National Geographic  Short Film Showcase. 

MAP CREDITS - Source: Atlas of Wildlife Migration: Wyoming’s Ungulate. Cartography: Jim Meacham and Alethea Steingisser, University of Oregon InfoGraphics Lab. Elk data contributed by: Wyoming Game and Fish Department; Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks; Idaho Fish and Game; National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service; Wildlife Conservation Society; Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit; Iowa State University; and Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.