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Monday, August 17, 2015

Volunteers Help Track Elk and Hunters

The article below appears in the September-October 2015 issue of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's Bugle magazine.

Pine beetles are rapidly changing the landscape in the Rockies and clogging forest floors with deadfall, which has inspired RMEF volunteers to help the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish study how elk are affected by beetle-killed forests. Their interests aren’t solely in elk, however, but also in the patterns of hunters as they navigate the changing forest. 

University of Wyoming graduate student Bryan Lamont outfitted 150 hunters with GPS units last year and monitored where they hunted compared to where elk traveled, keeping a specific eye on how deep hunters wandered into extensively beetle-killed woods in southern Wyoming’s Medicine Bow National Forest. 

Lamont says elk populations in the area are already over the state’s management objective. If the data shows herds are living deep in the deadfall, where hunters have a hard time accessing and harvesting animals, there could be real problems with overgrazing in the area.

Originally nervous that hunters wouldn’t want their secret hunting spots mapped out, Lamont found the opposite was true. The hunting community was eager to help with the project.

“The hunters have been great and overwhelmingly supportive,” Lamont says. “We’re certainly not spreading people’s hunting spots around.”

To properly compare elk movement with the GPS-tracked hunters, a pair of ambitious RMEF volunteers from the Sweetwater Chapter in Rock Springs, Wyoming, spent a good chunk of their free time in February helping Wyoming wildlife biologists wrangle nearly 20 cow elk. Helicopter crews spotted and netted elk and the two RMEF volunteers on the ground helped tether, collect samples, check for pregnancy and age, and then radio collar and release each animal.

“It was a lot of fun,” says RMEF life member Mike Christensen. “It was similar to branding cattle; I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”



He and RMEF Wyoming state co-chair Dennis Hughes, also an RMEF life member, teamed up to help on this research project, which was funded in part by an RMEF grant. They came away impressed. 

Christensen says each elk was tethered properly to avoid injuring animals and volunteers. He commended the whole process for being extremely humane.

Lamont is still collecting data from radio collars and after this year’s hunting season he says he should be able to put the pieces of the puzzle together regarding beetles, hunters and elk.

“The project is still moving along well,” Lamont says. “And we definitely appreciate the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s help.” 

Cavan Williams, Bugle Intern

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