In the forest near Flagstaff, elk are being outfitted with collars, not as a fashion statement but to tell researchers what they and other animals need to navigate through urban sprawl, climate change and large restoration projects.
Researchers like Northern Arizona University’s Paul Beier, a conservation biology and wildlife ecology professor in the School of Forestry, said this information is critically important to keep animals from stepping into danger or even extinction.
“With climate change, we have the situation where habitat is literally moving out from under the feet of wildlife,” he said. “In order for these species to stay where they are, in terms of a healthy population, they have to move.”
Beier is developing maps detailing links for wild areas—or wildlife corridors—to help land managers understand how animals move across the land.
“We’re creating landscapes that are more permeable than the landscapes we had a decade or two decades ago,” he said.
For Arizona Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist Jeff Gagnon, the job of collaring an elk is somewhat like a rodeo event. Within minutes, he and a team of wildlife managers can calm a frightened animal that might weigh as much as a thousand pounds.
“We fit the collar to make sure the animal has some space and isn’t being choked,” he said.
Gagnon has been tracking some 130 elk around major highways including interstates 17 and 40. “We know where the animals are, what kind of habitat they are using and what barriers are stopping them. For a lot of animals when we fragment their habitat, they can’t get to resources like summer or winter range. We also run the risk of isolating or breaking up the herd, which can lead to a smaller gene pool and a weaker species.” The collar is programmed to fall off in a few months. But in the meantime, every two hours a GPS unit is sending signals to satellites that are sending signals to biologists.
With information about wildlife movement, highways are becoming less of a hindrance, and safer for wildlife and people. Groups like the Arizona Department of Transportation, Elk Society, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Federal Highway Administration are funding research and passageways.
For example, along State Route 260 near Payson, highway improvement projects have included wildlife crossings. “Animals are using the crossings,” Gagnon said, “and collisions between elk and motorists have been reduced by at least 85 percent.”
Wally Covington, director of NAU’s Ecological Restoration Institute, said managing for wildlife corridors is increasingly important as forests are restored on a landscape scale.
“Across hundreds of thousands of acres, natural habitat can be restored,” he said. “Wildlife can self-regulate. Predator/prey dynamics can keep populations in a sustainable, steady state that’s characteristic of the evolutionary environment.”
Wearing high-tech necklaces, today’s elk may well be leading the way for tomorrow’s wildlife corridors.
“We’re doing something that really matters,” Beier said. “It’s a fabulous triple win situation. It’s better for people, less road kill and more wildlife movement.”