Elk, like buffalo, once roamed widely across the Great Plains. Killed off in Nebraska by the 1880s, the majestic animals began a gradual return to the Cornhusker State after a 1960s repopulation in eastern Wyoming.
Now, University of Nebraska–Lincoln scientist John Benson is leading a comprehensive study of Nebraska’s elk population. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, a partner in the project, is providing $831,942 in federal grant funds for the research work, which is set to extend to 2028.
The project aims to help Game and Parks develop an effective management approach, including a hunting quota to maintain the elk population at a sustainable, manageable level and reduce the potential damage the large species can cause to landowners’ field crops, fences and haystacks. The study will be the first comprehensive analysis of the elk population statewide, extending beyond research early this century that focused on the Pine Ridge area alone.
“It’s really a broad study trying to learn about general elk ecology with specific interest in their movement behavior and population dynamics,” said Benson, who has led previous projects studying Nebraska’s populations of bighorn sheep and mule deer.
The project’s analysis will provide “a building block for an eventual population model where we can estimate population growth” and mortality dynamics, said Benson, associate professor in the School of Natural Resources. “That’s a really helpful model for Game and Parks in deciding on harvesting regulations using the best available science.”
To help develop a population estimate, better understand the geographic range of elk in Nebraska and collect mortality data, the multi-year project will use an extensive network of trail cameras installed by Game and Parks, as well as GPS collars deployed on elk by Benson and his team in collaboration with Game and Parks. The trail cameras will use both a motion-detection capability and time-lapse monitoring approach.
The camera method reduces the need to mark a large number of animals and offers the chance for data beyond that of elk populations.
“With the same data, we think we can get estimates for other species,” Benson said. “With this approach, we’re hoping we can do it on a big scale and at less expense.”
In February 2022, Benson and his team of graduate students, along with biologists from Nebraska Game and Parks, deployed collars on 70 elk and in the fall added seven more. That work has initially focused on the Pine Ridge, northwest Nebraska and north-central Nebraska, with expansions planned in the years ahead.
“We hope to eventually track elk in all the areas they occupy in the state,” Benson said.
The most recent previous study of elk in Nebraska was published by Husker scientists in 2005 and was limited to the Pine Ridge area. The study concluded that “up to 600 elk could be sustained in the Pine Ridge without significant impacts to landowners.” Elk, the study said, “shifted home ranges in association with the seasonal availability of agricultural crops, in particular alfalfa, oats and winter wheat.”
Much of the work of this current project, Benson said, will be carried out by graduate student Tabitha Hughes, who will conduct extensive field work, data analysis and scientific writing.
In addition to providing Game and Parks with “very practical information for local management,” Benson said, it’s important “for us to relate this to the big picture and learn something more broadly about elk and hopefully about animals in general.”
Benson, a native New Englander, has had a wide-ranging career in wildlife ecology studies. His research projects have taken him across the country, studying black bears in Louisiana; the endangered Florida panther in south Florida; moose and their predators in Alaska; mountain lions in California and Nevada; and great white sharks off the Pacific coast.
Most wildlife-study projects involve limiting the research to relatively small, constrained geographic areas. This new project is especially encouraging, Benson said, because it provides the chance to look at elk dynamics across the entire state.
“It’s an exciting opportunity to think about these ecological questions on such a big scale,” he said.
“Generally when we think about elk, we think about them in the Rocky Mountains and probably other places. I think it’s going to be pretty interesting to see how they live in this prairie, agricultural landscape that we have here in the northern Great Plains.”