By RALPH BARTHOLDT
Barb Moore is getting ready to put collars on elk.
Moore, a Fish and Game regional wildlife biologist, is among a group of elk chasers who will, starting in December, locate elk in the Coeur d’Alene and St. Joe river drainages using spotter planes or helicopters as part of a study to determine elk mortality rates.
As animals move out of cover and into the open, pilots hover close enough to give a shooter, using sedative darts, a clean shot at an animal. Once a dart has smacked a cow or calf elk, the elk chasers jump from helicopters, find the animal and place a GPS collar around its neck. They take a blood sample, collect droppings, body measurements and measure the fat on the elk’s backside to determine general health, before waiting for the animal to recover and trot off.
Then they do it all over again.
This year, game managers plan to collar 60 calves and 25 cows in Panhandle units 4, 6 and 7, and along the North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River in Unit 4.
“On average we collar 15 animals a day,” Moore said. “We’ve had days where we collared 21 or 22 animals.”
Since the study began three years ago, more than 300 elk have been collared in the Panhandle in an effort to measure survival rates, Moore said.
The collars track elk movement twice a day, sending the information back to biologists. If a collar doesn’t move for a while — usually meaning the elk has died — an email is automatically sent.
So far, biologists through the collaring study have learned that cow elk in the Panhandle have high survival rates. About 94 percent of collared cow elk survive the winter, and once calves pass the one-year mark their survival rates climb too, despite winter conditions.
Last year, which saw higher than average snowfall, with snow staying longer, only half of the collared calves survived. A year earlier the rate was 80 percent.
Two years ago, predations accounted for 17 percent of dead calves, with 14 percent of calves killed by cougars and three percent killed by wolves according to the study. Last year, lions killed 16 percent of calves, wolves accounted for 6 percent of dead calves, starvation killed 16 percent of calves, the remaining dead calves found by biologists were killed by disease or parasites.
This season, the department is also working with biologists from the Clearwater region to link forage quality to the nutritional levels of elk.
The collared elk will serve a dual purpose, as the Clearwater study expands into the St. Joe region. The Clearwater study focuses primarily on lactating elk, which require high quality forage to stay healthy, Moore said.