Where did they all go? How hunting pressure affects the movement of deer and elk

We have all been there. You walk through your favorite sweet spot before the season, and your heart flips happily to the tune of the birdsong: animals seem to be everywhere: a hoofprint here, a patch of hair on a thorny bush there, oh, look – here they are! And more over there! All promises the best season ever, but come the opening day, and lo and behold, the forests appear to be empty! It is as if game birds and beasts get alerts about start and end dates of hunting seasons. Is this true or is this just some kind of coincidence?

There has been a lot of scientific research lately that tried to find out how do deer, elk, and other game animals react to hunting pressure. These studies usually take advantage of the GPS technology. They catch the animals, either with the help of the net guns, or by immobilizing them with darts; net guns appear to be better for the animals, as the causal mortality from the research is much lower. The creatures are equipped with GPS collars and released. 

Mostly, the studies only confirm what hunters already know from observation – for example, that deer and elk do change their behavior once the hunting season commences. How do they know the season began? It can be hypothesized that, as most seasons start at about the same date each year, the animals’ “let’s be a bit more careful now, OK?” behavior could be triggered by shortening daytime. But it looks like it is the appearance of hunters that gets the hoofed denizens of the woods into the “hide mode”. One study of white-tailed deer showed that the bucks change their behavior as soon as hunters begin pre-season scouting. 

Unlike elk or red deer, whitetails are highly territorial and loyal to their territory, that is, they don’t leave it without a good cause. But they use different parts of their territory under pressure than they do if they are left alone. The bucks limit their motion, and when they move, they move at nighttime. Actually, only the daytime patterns of movement are altered by presence of hunters, at nights the bucks feel as free to move as before the hunting season. And in contrast to the popular saying “he thought with his willy and ended in my chili”, studies show that the rut does not negate this effect: the bucks still stick to “under pressure” motion patterns. 

As many hunting seasons are timed to the reproduction period, it’s not always easy to tell the effect of human pressure from seasonal change of habitat. Red deer, for example, prefer dense young undergrowth not far from small forest ponds or other sources of water in the summer months. But it would be useless to look for them there in September, when the “roar” commences. Then, they would move to more open grounds, like old forests bordering on meadows, where the stags and the females can find each other more easily. The stags, where not limited in their motion, e.g., by road network, would cruise in the radius of over 25 km. away from their usual range, in search of new rivals and mating partners. 

A study of red deer behavior in Norway suggested, however, that even as the stags tend to prefer the more open grounds during the “roar”, some of the stags, with the start of the hunting season, change their behavior and begin to stick to habitat with more cover. These animals limit their movement as well – and are statistically much less likely to be harvested by hunters! Interestingly, in that study hinds didn’t change their behavior, as they usually stick to denser wooded areas anyway. 

This contrasts with the findings of the studies done on North American elk. Elk cows are more responsive to hunting pressure and manage to evade hunters better than bull elk do. Some authors go so far as to claim that an elk cow older than 10 years is nearly invincible to hunters. The explanation that the researchers offer is that cows are more gregarious than bulls: staying in groups, they learn from each other. If one of the cows in a herd is killed, the other cows will obviously learn their lesson and become more careful. 

It answers the next questions that some researchers pose: do game animals actually learn to avoid danger, or is it simply the forces of natural selection at work (some authors call it “unnatural selection”, but we fail to see how human harvest is “unnatural”). If less careful individuals are more likely to be killed by human predators, warier ones have better chances to survive and reproduce. But if this was true, survival chances of a deer or elk would depend only on personality, and would not change with age. As we all know, it’s not so; older animals are better at escaping the hunters than less experienced ones, proving that they do learn.

Bull elk, according to some research, seem to be slower learners than cows: one study in Utah showed that the probability of getting shot in bull elk does not decrease with time. By contrast, it increases slightly. This may be due to the fact that the older bulls are more dominant, and, in order to gather and protect their harems, they must behave more conspicuously. That improves their chances to reproduce and supports this trait. Another explanation is a factor that the research doesn’t account for: hunters’ selectivity. Many hunters don’t just try to harvest any legal elk, they may be passing numerous younger animals in search of one mature, trophy, mountain monarch. 

This is all good, some hunters will say, but can science tell us where should we go look for them? Interesting question. Mostly, again, scientific research only proves what the hunters knew all along. For example, that if you hunt elk, you should get your rear end away from the roads. In fact, one research, carried out in eastern British Columbia and western Alberta showed that the elk that lived closer to the roads changed their behavior more than the elk that lived far from the road.

In most cases, when deer and elk change their behavior to avoid hunters, they try to use more cover than the usual – but not always. In the Utah elk research, some bulls, as the hunting season opened, moved not to the rugged and densely treed areas, as you would expect, but to higher elevations and more open grassland areas. The researchers suggest the elk could select the grasslands because of the better foraging opportunities, but again, another factor could be at work. An elk on a wide-open landscape may be a blessing for a rifle hunter, but a bowhunter hasn’t got a chance. And the elk, as the Canadian study demonstrated, can well distinguish between a rifle and a bow season! 

Yes, deer and elk are not stupid. In a particular context of survival in their natural habitat they are arguably much smarter than us. And if you want to get first-hand, practical knowledge on deer and elk behavior, there is no better source than a good professional hunting guide. Book a guided hunt on BookYourHunt.com and you’ll probably learn more in a week than you would in a year of reading research papers and blogs like that!

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