MOSCOW, Idaho — Aug. 16, 2021 — The combined effect of wolves and drought on human, plant and animal communities on rangeland in Idaho and eastern Oregon will be explored by a team led by researchers at the University of Idaho that includes collaborators at the University of Michigan and The Ohio State University as part of a five-year project.
Funded by a $1.6 million National Science Foundation grant, researchers will monitor six sites to learn how drought could affect vegetation in the region, and how resulting changes impact elk, deer and livestock, as well as their interactions with predators.
Scientists will also explore on a broad scale what effect wolves and drought jointly have on ranching communities and the changing rangeland system across the West.
“We’ll look at the interactions between wolves and drought and how those affect wild ungulate populations, as well as livestock and the people who live there,” said Sophie Gilbert, assistant professor of wildlife ecology and management and the project’s lead investigator.
The research also seeks to determine how decision-makers respond to these multiple sources of stress, and how wildlife and plant forecasting tools — resulting from the project — are received and used by ranchers and wildlife managers.
The study will examine the interconnectedness of the inhabitants of western rangelands, including humans, plants and animals, in the face of a changing climate and other stressors, Gilbert said.
“Stereotypical stories about the West are told with heroes and villains, where some animals may be considered good or bad, and some may be saviors or foes,” Gilbert said. “We want to go beyond that, to learn how interconnected those things are and how all wildlife comes with costs and benefits to humans that share these landscapes.”
The researchers will use camera traps to collect images of animals in the study area, and work with a film crew to document the research and produce a documentary film to share with the public.
Chloe Wardropper, assistant professor of human dimensions of ecosystem management, said researchers will share findings, footage and images from the camera traps in an effort to engage residents in communities throughout the study area. Volunteer citizen scientists will also get a chance to participate, and collaboration will take place online with anyone interested in the research.
“There will be opportunities to engage, to help identify wildlife and to volunteer,” Wardropper said.
As environmental changes intensify, they threaten human livelihoods and wildlife biodiversity, Gilbert said. The research will explore how multiple sources of stress impact humans, free-ranging livestock and wildlife in shared rangelands.
The study, which begins in September, will also be used to train an array of students including undergraduate and graduate researchers and a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Idaho. The team also includes professors, a postdoctoral researcher, and undergraduate researchers at the University of Michigan and Ohio State, as well as a co-investigator from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Outcomes of this project include a better understanding of how climate and carnivore risks affect human decision-making, and how humans impact rangeland food webs by raising livestock and altering wildlife behavior and abundance,” Gilbert said. “It could lead to increased opportunities for coexistence between humans and wildlife in changing environments.”
This project was funded under the National Science Foundation award 2109005. The total project funding is $1,597,830, of which 100% is the federal share.