It took two hectic days’ worth of work to catch the latest additions to West Virginia’s elk herd.
Division of Natural Resources officials were in Arizona on Jan. 24 and 25 to process elk captured by a specialized team of wranglers who netted the animals from helicopters. Randy Kelley, the DNR’s elk project leader, said he couldn’t believe how fast and efficient the capture crew turned out to be.
“I’d heard stories of aerial captures,” Kelley explained. “When they told us they were going to try to get 60 elk on the ground in just two days, I snickered under my breath. Then they went and did it.”
The helicopter crew, from a Colorado-based company called Quicksilver Air, caught 29 elk on the first day and caught 31 more on the second.
Kelley headed up a crew of DNR biologists who tagged the animals and got them ready to be shipped to the Mountain State. “We were processing an elk about every 15 minutes,” he recalled. “Those were long days, but they were very fruitful. We’d leave the motel at 6 a.m. and get back at 9:30 p.m. No one minded a bit.”
In the brief time they had to work with each elk, Kelley and his colleagues needed to put identification tags in each of the animals’ ears, collect a DNA sample, inject a microchip, bolt on a radio collar, and saw the antlers off all the bulls. Fortunately for the crew, only 10 of the 60 elk were bulls.
“There wasn’t much time, but we were experienced at it and we had a pretty good routine going,” Kelley said. “We’d get one animal back up on its feet and put it in the pen, and I would start laying out stuff for the next one. While I was doing that, I’d usually hear the chopper coming in with the next one.”
The elk were captured in an area about 40 miles east of Flagstaff. After netting the animals, the helicopter crews injected them with a sedative so they could safely be dangled below the helicopter and airlifted to the processing site.
“They sedated the animals just enough to keep them from being as frightened as they otherwise would have been,” Kelley said. “They were still able to walk.”
To further reduce stress to the elk, DNR workers kept them blindfolded as they worked on them. A wildlife veterinarian from the Arizona Game & Fish Department monitored the animals as they were being processed.
“She monitored their temperature; when any of them got over 105 degrees, we cooled them off with water or by packing snow around them,” Kelley said.
A few of the elk suffered what Kelley called “scrapes and scratches” during the capture process, but there were no major injuries. Nevertheless, two of the animals died within two days of their capture.
“The veterinarian did necropsies on them and determined the cause of death as ‘capture myopathy,’” Kelley said. “You hate to have any mortality, but it happens due to the stress. It’s not unusual to have up to 10 percent mortality. If we lose only those two, we’ll be doing well.”
Kelley said that if there are no further mortalities within the next few days, there’s a good chance the remaining 58 elk will survive their mandatory 30-day quarantine in Arizona and the subsequent trip to West Virginia via truck.
Kelley said the five DNR workers — himself, Nick Glotfelty, Eric Richmond, Chris Ryan and Colin Carpenter — got plenty of help from their counterparts in Arizona.
“Between staff and volunteers, they had 50 to 60 of their people working with us,” Kelley continued. “It was a well-designed, well-executed operation. Everyone handled their responsibilities well. It looked like chaos, but it was organized chaos.”