Ensuring the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

More Fun than Work

Earlier this year, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation volunteers helped researchers from the University of Wyoming’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit capture and radio collar elk in order to track their movements to find out whether migration patterns are being altered by tree fall from beetle kill.

RMEF volunteers  help researchers place
radio collar on an elk
The negative impact of pine beetles doesn’t end when a tree dies. Dead trees tend to topple over, and when too many do in a specific area, it can affect the migration habits of elk and other wildlife. To better understand if and how elk migration patterns might change due to beetle kill, researchers at the University of Wyoming’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit are radio collaring elk in the Sierra Madres to collect data on their movements. RMEF is helping to fund their efforts.

But to collar elk you first have to capture them, and that’s where two RMEF volunteers come in. Earlier this year, workers netted cow elk one at a time using a helicopter, then transported them to waiting biologists and volunteers. While the volunteers blindfolded and held down the elk, biologists collared them, took tooth samples to check age, administered antibiotics, collected fecal and blood samples, and performed ultrasounds. Six of the seven cows captured that day were pregnant.

“It was more fun than it was work,” says RMEF life member and Wyoming state co-chair Dennis Hughes. “I enjoyed the heck out of it.” Hughes had heard about this project at a state co-chair meeting and recruited another volunteer from the Sweetwater Chapter, Mike Christensen, to drive the 150 miles with him to help out with the elk capture.

Christensen was excited to be able to help, saying that it was “as much fun as branding.” He got involved with RMEF because he and his wife were looking for an organization they both connected with. “We’ve made a lot of friends since joining RMEF,” he says.

Matthew Kauffman, the primary researcher on the project, says this is the first time the research unit has studied how elk respond to this kind of change in their environment. Using GPS, the collars record the location of each animal every one to two hours. The information is stored on the collar, and after two years the collars drop off. The researchers then retrieve them and access the data.

Kauffman says organizations like RMEF, who also helped fund the study, are key to making these sorts of projects happen. “We’ve been excited to partner with RMEF for the past eight years in our research endeavors,” he says.

The research unit also plans to connect with hunters to determine if and how tree fall from beetle kill affects their hunting patterns. The data from the two studies will help the Wyoming Department of Fish and Game better manage elk and hunting in the Sierra Madres.

There are plans to do another elk capture in February, and Christensen says he will without a doubt be there to help out.

Shandra Jessop
Bugle Intern 

RMEF Grant, Volunteers Help Young Potosi Shooters

A Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation state grant and volunteers from the River Bluffs Chapter in Iowa helped the newly formed Potosi School District Clay Shooting Team in Wisconsin get off the ground and achieve success last spring.

Potosi School District Clay
Shooting Team
Elk don’t recognize state borders, and RMEF volunteers don’t tend to pay them much heed, either. Earlier this year, a group of volunteers from the River Bluffs Chapter in Dubuque, Iowa, took their support of hunting and outdoor programs for young people across the border into Wisconsin to help launch a new trapshooting club at the Potosi School District. 

Potosi, population 700, is a tiny and tight-knit community. This spring, the school district decided to join the Wisconsin High School Clay Shooting League. The program welcomes youth grades 6-12, with the only stipulation being they hold a hunter safety certificate. 

The Potosi team consisted of 10 participants, including seven boys and three girls. After rounding up support—which included an RMEF state grant, donated use of the local Southwest Wisconsin Sportsmen’s Club, local gun dealer and RMEF volunteer LaVerne Lehman reloading shells at cost, and many personal donations—the team began shooting in late April. Each team member shot 50 clay targets every Thursday night and some Saturdays at the sportsmen’s club for nine weeks, wrapping up their season in late June. 

Six adults volunteered to coach the team, including Don and Nancy Johnson (owners of the sportsmen’s club), Gene Kieler and Ed McKenzie—all from the River Bluffs Chapter. Some of the kids had been shooting for years while others were just beginners. The coaches taught them the basics of shooting safety and helped with marksmanship. 

Sometimes the smallest adjustment from a coach made a huge difference. For instance, one boy had too large a gun, so McKenzie loaned him one from his personal collection. The boy improved his shooting by 25 percent the very next round and about 50 percent overall by the end of the season. 

Another boy kept hitting only a couple of clays per 25 without improvement. Don Johnson checked to determine his dominant eye, found he was right-eye dominant, switched shoulders and the boy instantly went from one or two hits out of 25 to 8-10, and was shooting 15-18 out of 25 by the end of the season. 

Sportsmanship, respect and courtesy are also important aspects of the program. One parent commented that she was amazed that a group of 6th-12th graders could get along so well and be so helpful to each other. 

When it was all said and done, the team earned spring league awards for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place for highest state girl league shooters, 1st and 3rd place for highest state boy league shooters, 1st place in the conference, and 1st place for highest overall average shooter. They attended the High School State Tournament in Rome, Wisconsin, on June 13, where the girls earned 1st and 2nd place. 

“Not every kid has the physical ability or desire to play baseball or football,” says Nancy Johnson. “In trapshooting, there are no bench warmers. Everyone gets to shoot and participate the same amount of time as the next person. It is up to the individual how far they want to take it and how much they are willing to improve.” 

It certainly seems like the Potosi trapshooting team is shooting for the stars. 

Denise Kieler
Chair, River Bluffs Chapter

Whackin’ Weeds and Having Fun in the Raggeds

RMEF North Fork Chapter volunteers work
fight noxious weeds
 This past summer, the Paonia Ranger District on Colorado’s Gunnison National Forest and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s newly formed North Fork Chapter hosted “Whack’n the Weeds,” a day-long weed education and identification project in the Raggeds Wilderness, home to hundreds of elk. Twenty-seven volunteers—including youth and their adult sponsors from the Hotchkiss Grange—and Forest Service staff spent a Saturday hiking into the wilderness to learn more about noxious weeds, how to control and/or remove them, and to get their hands dirty eradicating them.

At the top of the “Hit List” was houndstongue, which produces flowers and seeds during its second season of growth and can cause organ failure in elk and livestock if eaten in sufficient quantities, and decrease forage quantity and quality for wildlife. After the group hiked a few miles into the wilderness, they spent the day chopping and bundling houndstongue from a nearly 4-acre meadow. 

A surprise, and very welcome, partner on the project was the Rocky Mountain Mule Pack String, which is a working pack string that assists with trail, wilderness and backcountry projects across the Rocky Mountain region. The pack string just happened to be in town that weekend for the Paonia Cherry Days parade. When it was all said and done, each mule hauled out about 300 pounds of noxious weeds in it's panniers. 

Rocky Mountain Pack Mule String carried
weeds out for the crew
Paonia District Ranger Levi Broyles says, “A lot of great things happened through this project. A lot of people got excited about the work and were eager to lend a hand. Citizens stopped to ask what was going on and applaud the groups’ efforts. And of course, the pack string was a great addition.” 

After their hard work, the volunteers hiked out and were rewarded with sandwiches, chips, drinks and some cold watermelon prepared by Forest Service staff. 

Weed Day was a great success, and both the North Fork Chapter and Paonia Ranger District hope to continue this effort next year, encouraging more volunteers, youths and groups to help, learn and have fun! 

Dan Gray
North Fork Chapter

Cultivating the Next Generation of Hunter-Conservationists

About the only thing most RMEF volunteers like better than conserving elk country is getting out into it with their bow or rifle. If they can help cultivate a young hunter while they’re at it, that’s icing on the cake. 
Since 2007, RMEF volunteers from the Flagstaff and White Pine chapters in Arizona have stepped up to host or support junior hunter camps aimed at youths whose parents don’t have the skills or experience to introduce their kids to hunting, shooting and the outdoors. Through mentoring and hands-on training and instruction, the camps build skills, knowledge and confidence—and instill what RMEF volunteers hope will be the beginnings of a lifelong love for hunting and the outdoors. 

All big game hunters under the age of 14 in Arizona are required to take hunter education, and in most cases the courses are taught in a traditional classroom format. But not in Flagstaff. Instead, participants ages 9-12 attend a weekend family campout held each summer at the Northern Arizona Shooting Range east of town. Hosted by the Flagstaff Chapter, the Coconino County Campout Hunter Education Class offers instruction in survival, first aid, map and compass, an introduction to muzzleloaders and archery, blood trailing, field dressing, proper methods to cape and skin an animal for the taxidermist, wildlife identification, rules and regulations pertaining to wildlife in Arizona, safe use of firearms, types of firearms and ammunition, camp sanitation and food preparation. All students practice their shooting skills with .22 rimfire rifles on the 50-yard range, including instruction about range procedures and commands. 

RMEF Arizona State Grant funds help purchase ammo, targets and miscellaneous range and camp supplies, water and food for this popular event. In addition to teaching classes and setting up and taking down camp, RMEF volunteers also provide dinner on Saturday and breakfast on Sunday for all students and their families. 

Because they just can’t get enough, the Flagstaff Chapter hosts a second event aimed at youths each fall at Mormon Lake—an area where excellent opportunities exist for young hunters. Coined the Unit 6A Junior Elk Hunter Information Camp, the clinic is held over four days in October for anyone who drew a junior elk tag in Unit 6A, along with their hunting parties. The first evening, RMEF volunteers present information about hunter safety, care and handling of elk carcasses, and current elk concentrations in the area before providing dinner and a drawing for raffle prizes. Volunteers then staff the camp continuously for the next three days to provide coffee, cocoa and pastries each morning and assist hunters with information about the area. 

The RMEF’s White Pine Chapter has also been doing its part by co-sponsoring the White Mountains Youth Hunter Camps, held at various locations on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Hosted by the Arizona Fish and Game Department and Youth Outdoors Unlimited, the program offers three junior hunter camps each fall (small game, antlerless elk and predator) to provide youths ages 8-17 with hands-on instruction in safety and ethics, tracking and calling game, shooting, field dressing and skinning, and conservation. A fourth camp held in the spring teaches youths interested in turkey hunting about wild turkey biology, habitat, surveying, management and translocation. RMEF Arizona State Grant funds help provide camp supplies and food for each camp, and White Pine Chapter volunteers are on hand to help staff the camps, mentor hunters, help with tracking and calling, retrieve game and cook meals. 

All told, the Flagstaff and White Pine chapters have dedicated countless hours over the past seven years to help bring more than 2,100 youths into the fold through junior hunter camps. And you can bet they’ve enjoyed every minute of it along the way.

Opening Up More Pennsylvania Elk Country

A foggy day in Pennsylvania elk country
It was the perfect kind of September day to be an elk in east-central Pennsylvania—overcast, chilly, foggy, drizzly and with the kind of dampness in the air that chills you to the bone. But it was a glorious day. In fact, the circumstances could not have been better.

Dozens of elk lovers put on an extra layer or two as they gathered to celebrate and dedicate the latest land acquisition by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Located in the heart of Pennsylvania’s elk range in Elk County’s Benezette Township, dedication ceremonies recognized yet another successful collaborative effort between the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) and RMEF to permanently protect, conserve and open public access to another 81 acres of prime elk habitat. 

The Woodring Farm project, as it’s called, is now a part of State Game Lands 311. It will eventually include an overlook, trails and parking areas that will make it easier for wildlife viewers to better experience Pennsylvania’s growing elk herd. RMEF stepped up with a $100,000 commitment to help make it happen.

“The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has been a monumental partner over the years for the Pennsylvania Game Commission in regards to elk management,” said Barry Zaffuto, PGC Northcentral Regional Director. “Those that have ever seen an elk in Pennsylvania owe that experience to the men and women of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.”

Since 1991, RMEF and its partners completed 311 conservation and hunting heritage outreach projects in Pennsylvania with a combined value of more than $22.6 million, including 10 land acquisition purchases that opened or secured public access to 8,465 acres. 

Like much of the eastern United States, elk once historically roamed throughout Pennsylvania, but the last was killed off in 1867. The state released 145 elk brought from Yellowstone Park into seven counties between 1913 and 1926. By 1998, Pennsylvania’s herd had grown to 312, and the PGC relocated some animals to establish a new herd in the Sproul State Forest. Today, approximately 900 elk roam Pennsylvania and an elk hunt takes place every year.

RMEF, and our 11,000 Pennsylvania members, are proud to be part of a continuing effort to bolster elk and elk country in the Keystone State.

Winslow Hill, PA (Courtesy Ronald J. Saffer)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Good Times at Elk Festival!

What lasts four days, draws folks from across the Upper Midwest and ends with scores of people --young and old-- returning home with full sets of antlers? It's gotta be the annual Elk Festival in tiny Atlanta, Michigan. This year's festival was the event's 30th. Activities included a parade, fish fry, street vendors, raffles, fun run, greased pig contest, live entertainment, pie eating contest and much more.

Among those on hand were volunteers of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. They offered youth and adults alike the opportunity to learn the proper aspects of firearm safety and shooting through the SAFE (Shooting Access for Everyone) Challenge program. SAFE offers participants the chance to shoot a BB gun and also learn about the hunter's role in wildlife management, the importance of hunting as a conservation tool and education about the North American Wildlife Conservation Model. Boys and girls, and their parents, also learned more about elk and elk habitat.

Historically speaking, settlers killed Michigan's last elk in 1877, but by 1915, the state released 23 elk brought from Yellowstone Park. Nine of those went to Cheboygan County. The herd prospered, growing to 1,500 animals by the 1960s. Habitat loss and poaching reduced it to 200 animals by 1975, but better habitat management helped the herd bounce back. Today, about 1,000 wild elk live in Michigan.

Thanks to our dedicated volunteers for helping to spread the word about the RMEF, conservation, elk and elk country!

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Rut: It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Andy Williams wasn’t crooning about the rut when he released his hit Christmas song “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” way back in October of 1963. (At least, we don’t think he was.) For elk hunters, it’s a hands-down, slam dunk, no-doubt-about-it no brainer. The rut is indeed the most wonderful time of the year.

As August draws to a close and the calendar page flips into September, the days shorten; temperatures cool and snow starts to fall in the high country. It’s mating season. Elk begin moving to lower elevations. Bulls wallow in mud to coat themselves with urine “perfume” to attract cows. They bugle and rub trees, shrubs and the ground with their antlers to attract cows and intimidate others bulls. Mature bulls stake their claims to harems by moving in among a group of cows and calves. Sometimes, they wage violent battles for a harem, even fighting to the death on occasion. The harems remain a scene of constant action from September through October, and sometimes through November.

Hunters head to the forests and mountains to see and hear the action. Bulls let out bugles, haunting screams that are among the more beautiful in all of nature. The bugle advertises their presence and fitness to both females and other males. They bugle to lure in cows. They also bugle to announce or accept a challenge from another bull. It is their most vocal time of the year, and a time of the year when a hunter can often get the closest to the herd because of all the commotion.

For wildlife viewers, the scene is just as mesmerizing but for those not familiar with elk and their mating habits, it can be downright dangerous. Aggressive bulls take out their frustrations on cars, trucks and people who just don’t seem to recognize or understand that the animals are indeed wild. Below is just one example of what happens every summer in Estes Park, Colorado—a haven for elk and for tourists who get dangerously close.

As the rut begins, media reports from Yellowstone Park to Canada to the Smokies issue warnings to visitors to keep their distance. 

So if you’re viewing elk from inside a car or truck from afar or chasing them up-close with a bow or rifle, be careful and enjoy. It certainly is the most wonderful time of the year.