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Following Elk, Gathering Data

It’s 7:08 a.m. Professor Wirsing and students Andrew Wang, Jenny Brent, Hannah Booth and Suzannah Yu crouch behind snow-covered sagebrush and spy on a group of elk on a ridge across the Yellowstone River. They’re gathering data for a project Wirsing has been running since 2012. How do elk behave in relation to their landscape? Their herd size? Their position in the herd?

Booth keeps the scope on a single elk for 15 minutes, noting every 30 seconds what it’s doing: “Foraging.” “Bedded.” “Vigilant.” Yu keeps the time, and Wang notes the behaviors. Field research like this is often tedious, painstaking and uncomfortable. But once those 15 minutes are up, there’s a sense of accomplishment. It may be one sheet of data among sheaths, but it’s important — and the students have contributed.

Knowing what we don’t know

Decades of research in Yellowstone have produced a treasure trove of information — and exposed research gaps. Scientists need to identify what they don’t know to help wildlife managers make better plans. Take the case of the elk: Biologists are still learning how many animals Yellowstone can support, and ongoing research is critical.

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