LARAMIE — Understanding of Wyoming’s unmatched big-game migrations will be advanced with the creation of a new professorship at the University of Wyoming.
Jerod Merkle, an expert in animal movement ecology, has been selected to fill the Knobloch Professorship in Migration Ecology and Conservation, created through a partnership of UW and the Knobloch Family Foundation. He will join the faculty of UW’s Department of Zoology and Physiology this fall.
“Increasingly, research by the university and its collaborators indicates that Wyoming’s big-game migrations are unmatched throughout the hemisphere. But much remains to be understood about how elk, mule deer, pronghorn and other ungulates in the region make their epic journeys,” UW President Laurie Nichols says.
“This new professorship will advance the science necessary to conserve this important piece of Wyoming’s unique natural heritage.”
Merkle, whose expertise is in quantitative wildlife ecology, works to understand how wild animals’ individual movements are affected by the landscapes where they live and migrate — and how these interactions are reflected in population- and landscape-level ecological processes. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona, a master’s degree from the University of Montana and a Ph.D. from Canada’s University Laval.
At UW, he will teach courses, mentor graduate students and contribute to UW’s longstanding strength in fish and wildlife biology research.
“I am honored to join UW’s faculty to conduct innovative research that informs wildlife conservation and helps share the stories of Wyoming’s spectacular migrations,” Merkle says.
Merkle’s doctoral research is concentrated on bison in Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan. He found that the movements and resulting home ranges of bison were developed based on individual animals remembering their past experience and using it to make future decisions.
The results — indicating that bison rely on memory — have helped build the field of movement ecology, while also providing the park predictions of range expansion and contraction, along with management prescriptions to reduce conflicts with farmers on the border of the park.
He also found that individuals from this population of bison — the only free-ranging bison within their native range in Canada — learn from one another where to find the best-quality foods. In so doing, they are exposed to high hunting risk, because the best-quality foods were on agricultural fields on the national park boundary.
At every stage of his career, Merkle’s research has emphasized collaboration to address pressing questions faced by wildlife managers and other stakeholders. He has published in the field’s top peer-reviewed journals, and he is a recognized, up-and-coming leader in the field of animal movement ecology.
As the Knobloch Professor of Migration Ecology and Conservation, Merkle will also contribute to the Wyoming Migration Initiative (WMI), a novel research and outreach effort within the UW Department of Zoology and Physiology. WMI’s mission is to advance the understanding and conservation of Wyoming’s migratory ungulates.
“With Dr. Merkle as the Knobloch Professor, WMI is poised to expand its world-class focus on big game migrations,” WMI Director Matt Kauffman says. “He brings expertise in movement modeling, which provides the research toolkit to determine how animals make these journeys and navigate an increasing number of impediments along the way.”
The Knobloch Family Foundation has a strong interest in research and education that can lead to recognizing the value of natural capital including open landscapes, robust wildlife populations and functioning ecosystems.
Since 2012, the foundation has supported the Wyoming Migration Initiative’s research program and they have been a champion of on-the-ground conservation to sustain Wyoming’s remaining long-distance migrations.