LOGAN — In years past, tracking a radio-collared elk would have sent Randy Kelley far out into the field.
Not anymore. Now Kelley can sit at his desk and, with a few clicks of a computer mouse, get a fix on every radio-collared elk he wishes to monitor.
It’s a good thing, too. At any given time, the elk the state Division of Natural Resources recently stocked into southwestern West Virginia could be scattered throughout 10 to 25 square miles of remote, rugged terrain.
Kelley, the DNR’s elk project leader, likes to keep a close eye on them. Computers, satellites and high-tech collars allow him to do just that.
“Four times a day, the [Global Positioning System] transmitters on the animals’ collars upload their exact location to an orbiting satellite,” he explained. “Anytime I want to find out where an animal has been, I can get on a computer and download its location onto a Google Earth image. As easy as that, I can see where the animal was at the time of the last upload.”
The computer link allows Kelley to get fixes on a single elk, a small group, or all 22 of them at once.
“They show up on the screen as dots superimposed on the landscape, but the software also allows us to combine several days’ worth of location data,” Kelley said. “The software will even combine those dots into a line that shows us the approximate route an elk has followed during that time.”
The high-tech setup has allowed Kelley to track the elk from the moment they were brought to West Virginia from the U.S. Forest Service’s Elk and Bison Range in Western Kentucky.
Prior to their release, the animals were kept for several days in a 3-acre holding pen. After DNR workers opened the pen’s gate and let them out, satellite tracking showed that they split up into smaller groups of two to three animals. The largest group, mostly cows and calves, numbers about nine.
“The oldest bull seems to be a loner,” Kelley said. “He associates with the other elk from time to time, but for the most part he does his own thing.”
Some animals move slowly and stay in a relatively small area, while others move quickly and cover a lot of ground.
“Their daily movements can be pretty interesting,” Kelley said. “Sometimes I sit back and wonder what caused an animal to move the way they did during a six-hour period. Some, you can see, are feeding along a ridgeline or the edge of a reclaimed [mining] area. But others move so far and so fast that you wonder if they’re being chased by coyotes or bears or free-ranging dogs.”
Most of the elk have stayed within 2½ to 3 miles of their Dec. 23 release site, but a few have roamed quite a bit farther. Young bulls, Kelley said, tend to be the most footloose.
“We’ve had them go from one side of the [Tomblin Wildlife Management Area] to the other and then back again,” he added. “They’re kind of like teenagers, curious and checking out their habitat.”
After a recent windstorm, a couple of the young bulls journeyed about 8 miles northwest to the Laurel Lake WMA in neighboring Mingo County. Within a few days, though, those animals returned to the Tomblin WMA.
Two of the original 24 elk died a few days after they were stocked. Both appeared to have succumbed to the stress of being captured and trucked more than 400 miles to their new home.
Kelley knew immediately when each animal had perished because their collars were equipped with mortality sensors that notified him of the deaths.
“When one of the collars detects mortality, it sends a signal to the satellite,” he explained. “The computer then sends me an email. I got one email at 8 in the morning, and I got the other at 7:30 at night. The emails came as soon as the mortality switch came on.”
On both occasions, DNR personnel were able to follow the collars’ GPS signals directly to the deceased animals. Both of the $2,000 collars were recovered and will be used on elk brought to the state in future stockings.
In the unlikely event that the collars’ GPS transmitters would cease to function, Kelly and his co-workers would still be able to track the elk.
“The collars also have VHF radio transmitters, which we could track using our good old-fashioned hand-held antennas,” he said. “And even if the GPS is working, if we go to an area where several animals are located and want to pinpoint one in particular, we can use the VHF for that.”
The bottom line, Kelley added, is that he and his DNR colleagues are able to keep quite a close eye on the first elk to roam the Mountain State in 145 years.
“And as we bring in more elk, we’ll be putting collars on them, too,” he said. “We have a lot invested in these animals, and we want to do everything we can to monitor and protect them.”