Every spring, tens of thousands of elk divided among nine different herds traverse perilously rocky terrain, swim across fast-moving rivers, and scale precipitous mountain slopes. They do what researchers refer to as “surfing the green wave” in search of freshly sprouted grass. Their healthy, active movement acts as the life-blood for the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
As they become more abundant, so do their predators. And with a healthy balance of predators, Yellowstone thrives.
In fact, elks’ existence within Yellowstone’s ecosystem is so critical that the Crow Nation native to the region originally named the river flowing through its boundaries Elk River, before it was later renamed Yellowstone River. The name pays homage to the life flowing through Yellowstone, rather than the rocky edges bordering it.
It’s this distinction that inspired the name behind filmmaker Jenny Nichol’s documentary “Elk River,” a short film she co-directed with photographer Joe Riis that follows the journey of scientist Arthur Middleton and Riis as they attempt to document the perilous journey of Yellowstone’s elk. The film also features artist James Prosek, whose work allows viewers to appreciate Yellowstone’s beauty.
“If we didn’t have these wilderness areas that have been maintained and if people hadn’t fought the battles to set aside these lands, we wouldn’t see these phenomena today,” explained Middleton. Like bison, elk were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century.
For Middleton, Riis, Prosek, and Nichols, their conservation medium may differ, but their mission does not. Telling the story of elk migrations underscores the underlying imperative to protect the environment on which they depend.
The film closely follows Middleton and Riis as they walk the difficult terrain traversed by migrating elk. Experiencing the long journey they make gave Middleton a greater sense of respect for the animals.
While the thousands of elk that migrate in this region depend on the protection afforded Yellowstone National Park, they also rely heavily on the regions outside its borders.
Middleton has been working in the park for 10 years. His focus has centered around the Cody Herd, named after its proximity to Cody, Wyoming. To better understand migratory movements, Middleton and a team of researchers from the University of Wyoming, and a number of other partners, placed tracking collars on over 100 elk to sample the movement of the roughly 6,000 that comprise the herd.
In the film, this task is performed like a scene from an action movie. With aerial shots taken from inside a helicopter, Middleton and his team descend into the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Dropping nets and immobilizing elk, they quickly snap GPS-tracking collars around their necks, a maneuver that takes an average of 10 minutes. After two or three years, the collars run out of battery life and automatically pop off. By that time, Middleton and his team have enough data to accurately map their movements.
Healthy elk populations can be attributed in part to the cooperation of ranches neighboring Yellowstone. Their large swaths of land preserve areas that remain untouched by development. Being free of disturbing roads and barriers helps herds maintain their activity.
Yellowstone is a federally managed national park. While currently protected, what to do with federally managed public lands has become a heated debate. A recently proposed House rules package would transfer public land ownership to the states, a move that could see protected areas divided for development. An additional proposal last month proposed privatizing 3.3 million acres of public lands but was later rescinded after public outcry.
“Death by a million cuts,” Middleton called his biggest concern.
His focus remains on better understanding Yellowstone’s complexity, but he hopes Elk River will inspire people to feel a sense of ownership over an ecosystem in which they are explicitly involved.
“In the current political climate it’s more important than ever to understand the importance of public land and protected areas,” said Nichols. She notes that Yellowstone’s borders are drawn based on geography, rather than ecology, an urgent cartographic distinction that she hopes will prompt people to protect the land beyond the park’s borders.
When their migratory paths are obstructed, they struggle to survive. And when Yellowstone’s elk struggle to survive, so does everything else.
This article was first published by National Geographic on 03 Mar 2017.
Share on social media:
You may also like:
Top-Viewed Posts Last 30 Days
- POLL: Should Finland’s 235 wolves be culled? [1641 Views]
- POLL: Should all tiger farms in China be closed down? [1621 Views]
- POLL: Should the Wildlife Trust’s campaign to slaughter grey squirrels be stopped? [1609 Views]
- POLL: Should Trump disband USDA Wildlife “Killing” Services? [1219 Views]
- POLL: Should more bear hunting licenses be issued? [1152 Views]
- Gray Squirrels versus Red Squirrels – The Facts [967 Views]
- POLL: Should Australia’s feral cats be culled? [824 Views]
- POLL: Could U.S. endangered species rules go extinct under Trump? [727 Views]
- Why do birds sing? [634 Views]
- An elk’s-eye view of migrating through Yellowstone [569 Views]
Top-Viewed Posts Last 12 Months
- White Killer Whale Adult Spotted for First Time in Wild [42056 Views]
- POLL: Should there be a worldwide ban on fur farms? [16800 Views]
- POLL: Should fur farming be banned in the European Union? [13853 Views]
- POLL: Should Congress disband Wildlife “Killing” Services? [11117 Views]
- POLL: Should driven grouse-shooting be banned? [8614 Views]
- POLL: Should grouse shooting on highland estates be banned? [8309 Views]
- POLL: Should the annual Canadian seal hunt be banned? [8116 Views]
- POLL: Should black bears be killed for Royal Guards’ fur caps? [8048 Views]
- POLL: Should China’s dog meat festival be banned? [7417 Views]
- Wildlife Photo Adventure in Costa Rica! [6115 Views]