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Female Elk Learn to Give Hunters the Slip

The majestic beasts learn how to outsmart hunters—and even modify their behavior based on the kinds of weapons used to kill them

This elk is unimpressed by your feeble attempts to hunt her. (Brian Gratwicke - Flickr/Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

Elk are nothing if not majestic: the gigantic deer relatives are imposing, to say the least. But don’t let their impressive looks distract you from their impressive intellects. As New Scientist’s Ben Owens writes, the animals are so smart that they can become “almost immune to hunting.”

Researchers tagged 49 female elk in western Canada with GPS collars and tracked them for six years to tease out how their behavior changed with age. It turns out that not only can female elk learn to outsmart human hunters, but they seem to use different techniques to evade hunters with different weapons. The researchers chronicled their results this week in a study published in the journal PLOS One.

The elk are much trickier than expected. The creatures changed how they move based on the types of weapons hunters used. During rifle season, the elk kept clear of roads used by hunters—or opted for densely forested area when they had to travel near roads. But during bow hunting season, when hunters need to get close to elk to stalk them, the tricksters switched to more difficult terrain that presumably would be harder for hunters to traverse.

Older really does mean wiser in the case of elk, writes Owens. Female elk become much less likely to be shot by a hunter as they age, and the researchers note that they become “almost invulnerable to human hunters” by the time they’re nine years old. “It’s remarkable how bulletproof they become,” Henrik Thurfjell, who co-authored the paper, tells Owens.

Despite those wily ways, humans have impacted elk populations. People are elk’s primary predators, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notes that the approximately one million elk that live in North America today make up only 10 percent of the population before it was settled by Europeans. Recently, elk have been vanishing throughout the United States—a trend thought to be driven by human factors like fishing, bear and wolf management, and climate change. However, they are currently listed as of “least concern” by the IUCN Red List, which keeps track of endangered species.

For researchers, the new study highlights how important learning is to elk. The animals don’t just become more cautious; rather, they adapt their behavior to specific circumstances. And since they live so long—upwards of 20 years—the chances to learn continue over a lifetime. The team hopes their insights might lead to better management strategies for elk. But it’s also a chance to marvel at just how crafty those majestic beasts can be. 

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