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Elk Take a Page From Charles Bronson: Become "Hard To Kill"

Jun 20, 2017 10:03 AM EDT

(Photo : Flicka via Flickr CC BY-SA 1.0)

Every hunter knows that an older elk is harder to kill. Natural selection has made the younger, bolder elk rare, but once they survive to maturity, they tend to keep surviving. A new study suggests that this is not just natural selection, but learned behavior. The elk are getting smarter.

Just wait until they can shoot back.

Ecologist Henrik Thurfjell at the University of Alberta theorized that elk are actually learning how to avoid hunters as they age. Thurfell and his colleagues put GPS tracking collars on 49 female elk in western Canada to monitor them over a six year period. 

What Thurfell learned was that younger elk began following the lead of older elk to avoid hunters. The elk behaved like they knew when to be more cautious. The animals exhibited such behavior as using dense forest cover when near roads or only using rocky terrain when near areas where lazy hunters were known to be cruising by in slow moving vehicles. The elk even started moving around less during hunting season. 

"It's remarkable how bulletproof they become around age 8 or 9,"  Thurfell remarked. 

It even seemed that the elk knew when it was bow season or rifle season. During bow season they made use of rocky, difficult terrain. Bow hunters must get much closer to elk in order to kill them. Utilizing difficult terrain, elk were able to make it much tougher for hunters to get to a spot where they would be able to take a shot with a bow. During rifle season the elk knew to stay far away from roads. Hunters are found near roads and they knew that in order to stay alive they needed to steer clear. 

This information could prove useful in land management. If elk really are that smart, we can find a way to keep them away from farm land and crops. If farmers can simply apply a bit of hunting pressure near their farmlands, the elk will learn quickly to stay away and the crops will not get eaten. 

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