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Posted November 19, 2011
In his Where Elk Roam, biologist Bruce L. Smith, PhD, shares a labor of love and discovery (not to mention a sense of urgency) after 22 years of field research on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Not since Olaus Murie¿s 1951 classic book, The Elk of North America, based on Murie¿s 18 years of research in Jackson Hole that began in 1927, has a single author written so eloquently and extensively on the ecology and management of elk. As Murie was, Smith is a naturalist who observes the wondrous behavior of animals and records them, but unlike Murie, Smith was armed with guns that shoot tranquilizing darts, and radio collars and microchips, receivers and aircraft that all enabled him to track hundreds of study elk across rugged mountainous terrain at all seasons, and helicopters to vastly accelerate his work in capturing and observing more than 400 elk for seven years. If all this sounds highly technical and scientific, it is. However, applying these technologies demanded hundreds of hands-on contacts with the elk, and Smith was not unaffected by that intimacy. ¿I¿m still awed by this. How remarkable to place my hands on this wild beast.¿ And, to what end, all this manhandling of elk?
Since its establishment in 1912, the National Elk Refuge has increasingly concentrated wild elk, excluded by human activities from their 200-mile historic migration southward to winter on Wyoming¿s Red Desert. Smith documents the effects of that concentration, that, with twenty-two Wyoming State feedgrounds feeding 23,000 elk, adds up to 31,000 elk in five western states - about 3 percent of North America¿s million elk. And what are the effects of this concentration of elk? Brucellosis, a bacterial disease brought from Britain with cattle, was identified in bison in neighboring Yellowstone National Park in 1917, and in Jackson Hole elk in 1930. Both bison and elk have a higher seroprevalence of Brucella when concentrated than when they are free-ranging (In Jackson Hole, 80 percent of adult female bison were seropositive, as were 39 percent of female elk). The disease has minor population effects on wild elk and bison, but when brucellosis infects domestic livestock, it causes unacceptable abortions of calves. In recent years, livestock in northwest Wyoming and southeast Idaho have been infected with brucellosis from elk. Vaccination of elk doesn¿t work. The obvious solution to lowering the risk of transmission is to quit concentrating elk and bison on feedgrounds. But habit and tradition die hard, so winter feeding continues, in spite of its devastating effect on the vegetation and biodiversity of the area. And Chronic Wasting disease in deer, elk, and moose is marching toward the National Elk Refuge, with potentially disastrous consequences. Smith urges re-creation of the 200-mlle migration route from Jackson Hole to the Red Desert to disperse and save the elk.
Norman A. Bishop, Yellowstone National Park interpreter 1980-1997
Posted November 15, 2011
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