PhD student sought for study on what affects adult elk survival and recruitment in Bitterroot Valley

This is a job offer that looks like it could be interesting and of great value-

It could be controversial too.

PhD-assistantship in wildlife biology Univ. Montana





  1. Elk275 Avatar

    The PhD student should have additional requirements, including: a life long Montana resident, and a hunter. I am tried of students from states that do not have large number of big game animals trying to do big game studies in western states. There would be nothing wrong with requiring a number of years as a hunter. I know that this would be very touchy, but that is the way I feel.

    1. jon Avatar

      Just curious elk, why does he have to be a hunter and a life long Montana resident?

    2. Jay Avatar

      Maybe they should be a member of RMEF too, and state up front that they think wolves are probably the biggest problem?

      Cancer researchers don’t have to have cancer to study their subject, and it’s not necessary to hunt to research elk survival.

      1. Dude, the bagman Avatar
        Dude, the bagman

        Why not just add white, God-fearing Republican to the list as well? Certainly don’t want to let anyone who might not share your bias have a voice in the matter. They might offend your sense of cultural entitlement.

    3. Save bears Avatar

      Boy to bad, I have no desire to go on to get my PhD, or i would file for the position, I did elk studies in WA, this would be an interesting study to be part of ..

    4. PointsWest Avatar

      I think they should find one who smokes weed and who has dropped acid a few times. No real reason behind this, it is just the way I feel about it. 🙂

  2. timz Avatar

    Why do you have to be a killer of wildlife to study it?

  3. Rita K. Sharpe Avatar
    Rita K. Sharpe

    This topic is going to open up can of worms.

    1. Save bears Avatar

      Open up?

      That is an understatement, heck they are already wiggling across the floor!


    2. Ralph Maughan Avatar

      I thought so. Let this be forewarning to anyone who applies that you won’t be left free to follow the facts where they lead. 🙂

      1. Save bears Avatar

        The results will indeed be very interesting to say the least!

      2. Jay Avatar

        I’veheard Toby Bridges, Tony Mayer, and Ron Gillette are all interested in pursuing their PhD’s…

      3. Save bears Avatar

        Hold on Jay,

        I hear the Tonight show calling, I heard they had an opening for a stand up comedian!


      4. Jay Avatar

        Only if I can be the new Ed McMahon…

      5. JimT Avatar

        I think someone has experience here…;*)

        I too wonder why residency and hobbies are more important than ability, credentials, experience in the field.

  4. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    I wouldn’t be too worried — it’s through a local university and the work of a graduate student gets a lot of scrutiny from their committee and at least one or more members will likely be quite familiar with the area. And no there will no doubt some interaction with the funding source (in this case the State of Montana, not Defenders of Wildlife — or RMEF) who will want to see that the sampling design is sound and realistic for the questions being asked. I have a feeling there are going to be a lot of these top down versus bottom up studies in the next few years. They are not always easy to answer — there is still no agreement on the main effects on Steller sea lions after more than 2 decades of intensive research. Non-listed quadrapeds on land are a bit easier though.

  5. Jerry Black Avatar
    Jerry Black

    Working under Mark Hebblewhite would be a great opportunity for someone. I’ve listened to him speak on numerous occasions and his knowledge of wolves and predator/prey relationships comes from years of living and studying them in Canada. He has “walked the walk” and I honestly don’t believe politics gets in the way of his research..
    Here’s a story about a talk he gave in the Bitterroot.

  6. Cody Coyote Avatar
    Cody Coyote

    Wyoming has a similar research program going , through it’s one and only 4-year school and grad program, UW. It’s called the Absaroka Elk Ecology Study. While the research is being headed by UW grad schooler Arthur Middleton and his assistants, they are getting a healthy logisitical assist from Wyoming Game $ Fish. It began three years ago, and the field work is done…the collars dropped off the cow elk in April and most were recovered. Now it’s two years of number crunching.

    But here’s the essential point: this study , while involving the cooperation of the various state and federal agencies , was funded and framed by a consortium of hunter groups and hunter activists. Rocky Mountai Elk Foundation being the principal among them , but also involved are Safar Interneational, Boone & Crockett, and our old friends at Sportsmen for Fish and Willife. Even my local Outfitters and guides association kicked in . This study , too, was targetting calf recruitment and survival factors ( I have another correlation at bottom here )

    BUT—no nonhunting or bona fide Wildlife-Only conservation groups were invited to participate or help fund it. Just the trophy hunting cabal. We’re talking $ 650,000 worth of study here across a 5-year time frame.

    The researchers were studying a very VERY unique situation immediately east of Yellowstone Park in the Sunlight Basin of northwest Wyoming, which has a long established seasonal elk migration dynamic. Even though Yellowstone elk have been migrating out to Sunlight for probably thousands of years, in just the past decade or so a couple of really odd things have been observed.

    1. Many of the elk are choosing to not migrate back into Yellowstone at all. Instead, they have reclaimed a former range in the lowlands and plains east of the Absaroka Front, in areas that contain a lot of irrigated lands and are heavily controled for predators, including several wolf packs. These elk have learned that life is good out here where we hominids grow hay for them and keep the carnivores at bay , and are now a distinct herd unit .

    2. The elk that DO choose to migrate back into Yellowstone are faced with two-fold challenges. Preliminary results are showing that a very marked change has come to the vegetation cycle. The higher elevations of the migration corridor ( going back over the high divide into Yellowstone ) are not greening up as quickly or as abundantly as they did as recently as the 1980’s. This was determined both from field sampling and remote sensing data, but the real smoking gun was the satellite infrared imaging going back to the LANDSAT program that began monitoring from orbit in 1972. The NDVI datasets show the vegetation cycle has clearly altered , and was doing so before wolves were established or even present anywhere in the GYE.

    The other challenge is somewhat more ominous. While elk are definitely being affected by teh three wolf packs in this study area, there is a greater effect on the Elk from some heavy heavy hunting pressure ,especially towards trophy bulls. There is a September-October-November firing line up there in the headwaters of Sunlight and Crandall that hammer the elk. Of course they outfitters claim it ain’t them contributing to the decline and/or unbalancing of the Sunlight elk sub-herds.

    There is one more ominous factor cropping up. Those migratory elk have a very high incidence ( > 28 percent ! ) of Brucellosis serpositive. This most crtainly comes from co-mingling with elk in the sumemr season on the central plateaus of interior Yellwstone, where the serontology results are similar. This was unexpected, and not good for many reasons. It should be noted there are no managed feedgrounds in this corner of Wyoming…those are all south of Yellowstone on the far west side of the state. This is Brucellosis being transmitted naturally from elk to elk in the Yellowstone Park theater.

    Much will come of this Absaroka Elk Ecology Study , if folks will take off theirr blinders and/or polarized sunglasses

    What I really wanted to point out here was the AEES was framed from the get-go by its funders to prove beyond doubt that Wolves are the primary driver of poor elk calf recruitment and diminished/unbalanced herds. Unfortunately , the science went somewhere else. It turns out the wolves are merely taking advantage of other factors affecting the elk , and it’s actually emerging Grizzly BEars in the spring season that are hammering elk calves, while their mothers and other cows simply are not getting enough nutrition in the critical summer forage season because of the vegetation decline. The cow elk are coming up over 50 lbs. short of fat heading into winter, and that is reflected in the birth rate, pregnancy carrying, and lactation.

    The role of heavy trophy elk hunting in all this is also a big factor. But try to get them to admit they are part of the problem .

    It’s more complicated than just wolves.

  7. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    Any study primarily using radio collars is not valid to start with. Wolves course through an elk herd looking for any animal that is different from the rest. Collared animals will be selected as prey more often than non-collared animals.
    Coyotes in the Bison Range learned to follow the scent of the researchers to ear tagged newborn fawn Pronghorns and killed all of the tagged fawns.
    Any collared or ear tagged newborn elk calf can expect coyotes, bears and other predators to do the same.

    1. JB Avatar

      Larry: You would have more credibility if you began your posts with “I believe…” or perhaps “it makes sense that…”; but the fact is that you have never provided any evidence to back up your claims. If its your opinion, that’s fine; but you should state it as such.

    2. WM Avatar


      You state:

      ++Any study primarily using radio collars is not valid to start with. Wolves course through an elk herd looking for any animal that is different from the rest. Collared animals will be selected as prey more often than non-collared animals++

      I thought we put your (unsubstantiated?) theory to bed a few months ago, with a direct quote from Dr. Scott Creel. He is one of Dr. Hebblewhite’s contemporaries who does ungulate – predator research at Montana State U, and has done alot on wild dogs in Africa and wolves in the NRM. He read your assertion then on another thread on this forum, which was then pretty much what you state now, although this is in abbreviated form.

      Here, let me post it again (February 10, 2010):

      RE: Predator (wolf) preference for collared elk?

      I had a look at the discussion you mentioned {Ralph’s blog thread, and specifically Larry’s comment – WM}. Although I have published a lot of research on prey selection by African wild dogs, I have not seen any peer-reviewed paper that showed an effect of painting a stripe on the prey. It is true that studies of some predators have detected an ‘oddity effect’, where prey that are unusual for some reason can be more likely to be tested by predators. However, it is also true that most modern studies make an effort to minimize the size and conspicuousness of radiocollars (for example by color matching). The collared elk in our study had annual survival rates above 95%, and this sort of rate is typical of most studies of radiocollared elk, so it is pretty clear that collars are not a ‘kill me sign’.++

      1. SEAK Mossback Avatar
        SEAK Mossback

        I’m amazed how well-designed and apparently trouble-free radio collars have become, considering the wolves in Yellowstone that wear and function well with them almost their entire lives, with frequent change-outs. However, I saw an example recently that not everything has been perfected for all species and applications. About 3 weeks ago, I went on my 29th annual 10-day coho salmon escapement counting and sampling trip in a small coastal river valley near here. On the second day, we were wading down a small brushy headwaters creek well-populated with spawning cohos when a sizable brown bear appeared on an 8 foot bank right beside us. He looked us over and took off, but I noticed the top of the bank was all torn up so tiptoed up and peeked over the top. It looked like a bulldozer had torn a swath through the alders back 50 feet from the creek with 4 or 5 pits dug along the way. At the far end, we could see an adult bear lying on its side. We ventured over, poking into the pits, each of which had cached parts of bear. We discovered the bear was about half eaten and had a radio collar, one of the fancy GPS downloadable ones, which we removed and took with us. The neck region under the collar had sores and the collar itself smelled pretty bad.

        We had known that about 45 brown bears had been collared in the valley 2 to 3 years before. They all had specialized collars that were all supposed to automatically release and drop off at least a year before we found this one, but 6 or 7 had failed to release. The long-time ace veteran bear researcher had been trying with little success to track down and recover them by helicopter and had asked us to keep a look-out for bears with collars. Of course, after gazing at the collar on our tent porch over the course of a few evenings, we reached consensus that just handing it over to him with a truthful accounting of how we acquired it wasn’t even an option! So we cooked up a story about noticing the collared bear as a “regular” passing by our camp a couple of times a day and my assistant, Kent, having watched way too much Marlin Perkins as a child, deciding we could catch it in a ½ inch rope snare and remove the collar ourselves without any help from experts and tranquilizer darts (over strenuous objections of the other two of us). Then, a blow-by-blow account of all hell breaking loose outside at 3 a.m. followed by 2 hours of extreme night-time rodeo with a 400 lb. carnivore. Finally, two of us holding a section of alder trunk in the trussed bear’s mouth to occupy its jaws while Kent feverishly unbolted the collar with his Leatherman tool. Then the hard part, releasing it without getting killed, which was accomplished by suspending Kent overhead on a food storage pallet attached by block and tackle to an overhanging branch where he was able cut most of the ropes off with a pruning saw and a knife wired to a pole. To our delight, it all went down hook, line and sinker — received with a mix of innocent belief and incredulity.

        Anyway, back to the point. He said besides the malfunctioning timed releases, the fancier remotely downloadable collars are wider with an antenna folded up one side and that apparent small difference has made a huge difference in how they wear on a bear’s neck. He was emphatic that a collar should normally not smell bad like that one or make sores. I know bears killing and eating each other is not at all uncommon, but it makes you wonder — could this 12 year old sow have had significant health effects from the collar or did even just the smell make her more attractive or easier prey for one of the big boys?

      2. SAP Avatar

        SEAK –

        Two questions:

        Why couldn’t you just tell the guy you found the bear dead?

        He really believed your story of capturing the bear and removing the collar? Someone with no experience handling large animals that don’t want to be handled might believe that tale, but if a guy with that much experience bought that . . . wow.

        I think a collar could be a huge liability for an animal fighting for its life. Makes a real convenient tooth-hold for the opponent/predator to drag the animal down. I’ve noticed that in play fighting amongst dogs.

      3. Save bears Avatar


        I am sorry, you telling a Paul Bunyan sized story there! I am waiting for the Blue Ox to meander out of the woods!


      4. SEAK Mossback Avatar
        SEAK Mossback

        SAP –
        I only held the ruse long enough to make sure the bait was fully taken and deep — then gave him the mundane truth.

        In his defense, he walked into a perfect storm of chance and plausibility. He had been to our camp and knew it was situated more or less on a bear highway. He had spent time in the field with my assistant and knew him to be a creative, problem-solving, adventurous guy. He approached me, rather than the reverse, right after I returned from the field (and just happened to have the collar within arm’s reach). He asked “Where’s Kent?” which gave me the perfect opening while handing him the collar: “Kent’s in rough shape!”. I managed to deliver the entire B.S. story solemnly and with an air of disgust. Finally, bear collars don’t grow on trees out there and showing up with one is an improbable event that gives you a better chance of passing off an improbable story.

        Why the deception? Because wildlife folks on average tend to be a little too serious, type B and introverted and need their chain pulled now and then. Plus, we viewed it as an interesting challenge.

        However, they can occasionally be pushed too far and strike back. Years ago, a wildlife biologist from the landlocked interior transferred to a town just down the coast from here. His enthusiasm and naivety about the ways of coastal life gave an office full of mischievous commercial fishery biologists all kinds of opportunities to mess with him. Finally, one day somebody from the community brought him a harbor porpoise that they had found dead on the beach of apparent natural causes. He would have referred them directly to NMFS who have jurisdiction over marine mammals but they have no presence there, so he accepted it and put it in the freezer along with the expired bald eagles and other dead things that people find and think need to be accounted for. Later, when talk turned to fishing and his relatively unsuccessful efforts at trolling for winter kings in front of town, he mentioned he had caught a tuna.

        “Tuna? We don’t have those here.”

        “I didn’t think so. That’s why I brought it in and put in the freezer.”

        Of course, when he opened the freezer for his curious and mischievous office-mates, the specter went well beyond confirming his vast ignorance of coastal marine life, but put them in the position of having to turn him in for federal prosecution for killing a protected marine mammal.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan