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 

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