Monitoring West Virginia’s elk can be a challenge.
Ideally, each of the 95-plus elk in the Mountain State herd would be equipped with a Global Positioning System transmitter that allows biologists to know at a glance where the animal is.
From time to time, however, the transmitters malfunction. Batteries die. Elk outgrow their transmitter-equipped collars. And a few elk — those born after their parents were released into the wild — never had collars in the first place.
Since mid-January, Division of Natural Resources crews have worked diligently to put working transmitters on every animal that needs one.
“So far, we’ve collared or re-collared 10 individuals,” said Randy Kelley, the DNR’s elk project leader. “Five of them were animals we’ve re-collared or replaced their radios. Two were adults that came in the second batch of elk we received from Kentucky. Three were calves that were born here.”
The hard part, Kelley explained, is finding the animals. To do that, he and other DNR workers set up bait sites surrounded by cellular trail cameras that immediately transmit pictures of every bull, cow or calf that comes in for a bite. It’s not exactly a foolproof approach.
“Elk aren’t as predictable as deer when it comes to bait,” Kelley said. “They come in occasionally, but not consistently. I can almost name the deer that come to the sites, but I can spend a lot of time at the sites without seeing elk.”
He and his crew members have run “four or five sites” for the past couple of months.
“It’s an intense effort,” he said. “The sites have to be monitored every day, and we have to make sure fresh bait gets put out every day.”
When an elk earmarked for collaring begins showing up consistently at a site, Kelley grabs his dart gun, takes up a seat in a blind 10 to 15 yards from the bait, and waits for the animal to appear. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.
“If I go in the morning, I’ll usually sit there until about 11, when the elk go to bed down,” he said. “If I go in the afternoon, I’ll wait from about 2 p.m. until dark.”
While Kelley waits in the blind, his assistants wait in a truck about a quarter-mile away. “It takes three or four people to do the job quickly and efficiently,” he said. “Sometimes we have our wildlife managers or labor crew helping out. At other times we have law enforcement personnel, and sometimes we get volunteers.”
When an elk Kelley has been seeking comes within range, he shoots it with a tranquilizer dart and waits for the sedative to take effect.
“When they hear the pop of the CO2 gun, they usually run off,” he said. “Usually it’s a short distance, 40 yards or so. Most of the time, they run out of sight.”
An elk can cover a lot of ground in the 3 to 5 minutes it takes for the drug to take hold. Kelley said he and his assistants usually find the animal fairly quickly, but if they can’t they have an ace in the hole.
“Each dart has a little radio transmitter attached to it,” Kelley explained. “That feature has come in handy twice now, for animals that made it into the woods before they went down.”
As soon as he darts an elk, Kelley calls in his crew with a quick cell-phone text message.
“The team comes in and works the animal up,” he said. “If it just needs a new radio, the process doesn’t take long at all. If it’s a new capture, we put in ear tags and a microchip, take a DNA sample, and then put the radio on. Usually we’re able to get the animal back up and on its feet within half an hour.”
Crew members monitor the sedated animals’ respiration rates to make sure they’re not in distress. If their breathing slows down, Kelley administers a little of the drug that reverses the sedative’s effects.
Though it’s been successful so far, the collaring effort won’t go on much longer. The landscape is starting to green up, and the bait sites will become less effective as elk begin to feed on tender new grass.
Kelley said the effort has been time-consuming but necessary.
“We’ve got 10 radios back out there,” he said. “That’s $20,000 worth of radios that aren’t gathering dust in a closet somewhere. More important, though, we’re getting home-range and habitat-use data on 10 elk that we weren’t getting before.”