HOLDEN — “Dart’s in! Let’s go!”
With that command, half a dozen men piled into pickup trucks and began making their way toward a freshly tranquilized elk.
It’s a scene that, if Division of Natural Resources biologists can swing it, will be repeated 17 times before the end of March. To better manage the hundred or so elk that roam the sprawling Tomblin Wildlife Management Area, DNR workers like to keep tabs on the animals.
With new calves being born every year, and with radio-transmitter batteries running out, it’s an ongoing struggle to keep tags and transmitters on as many elk as possible.
“By putting collars out there and by monitoring individual elk on a day-to-day basis, we can keep track of where the animals are and have an idea of what they’re doing,” said Randy Kelley, the DNR’s elk project leader.
Because elk can overheat and become stressed when handled by humans, Kelley tries to dart the animals between mid-January and mid-March, when air temperatures are coldest.
To bring the animals close enough to shoot them with a carbon dioxide-powered dart gun, Kelley and his colleagues build plywood blinds and place them near sites baited with alfalfa, whole corn and sweet feed.
“We start to bait the sites in early January, to get the elk accustomed to coming and feeding at them,” Kelley explained. “We know where to put the bait sites because we know from the animals’ tracking collars which travel corridors they use, and which areas they frequent.”
Kelley places his highest priority on tagging and radio-collaring elk calves born the previous spring. Ordinarily the calves’ mothers are already collared, so he tries to set up bait sites near their preferred hangouts.
“We put a cellular trail camera at each of the bait sites, and from the pictures we get, we can tell if the animal we’re targeting is using the site,” Kelley said.
Once Kelley and his assistants figure out an animal’s behavior pattern, they pick a date for a darting attempt, drive to the site and put out fresh bait. The assistant leaves, and Kelley loads his dart gun and takes up his station in the blind.
“I wear scent-blocking clothing to keep the elk from catching my scent and spooking,” he said. “It works pretty well. One time I had a bull elk come over and nibble at the camouflage netting on the front of the blind. He was within 3 feet of me and didn’t smell me.”
Even though his dart gun is accurate out to 30 yards, Kelley prefers to let an elk come within 10 to 15 yards before he takes aim at the animal’s rump and fires.
“As soon as I dart an animal, I call in a backup team of helpers stationed about a quarter mile away, and they come in to assist me with processing the animal,” Kelley said.
First, they have to find the freshly tranquilized elk.
“That’s actually pretty easy, because the darts we use have radio transmitters in them,” Kelley explained. “Elk usually run away when they’re darted, and we don’t want to be looking blindly through the woods for a downed animal.”
Once the elk is located, the helpers tuck its legs under its body and roll it upright so it can breathe more easily. They blindfold the animal to help keep it calm during the processing.
If an elk needs a collar, Kelley slips it around the animal’s neck and secures it with bolts. Then he administers a dose of a de-worming drug.
“We want to try to keep the elk from getting brainworm, which is fatal to them,” he explained. “The drug only gives about 30 days’ worth of protection, but it’s better than nothing.”
Previously untagged elk also get identifying tags placed in their ears, and Kelley takes a DNA sample so the animals’ genetics can be traced.
“After we’re done, we give the animal a drug that reverses the tranquilizer,” he said. “Then we pull the mask off, wait for the reversal agent to take effect, and let the animal stand up and wander off.”
So far this winter, Kelley and his crew have darted and processed seven elk. He’d like to get 11 more done before the weather warms up in mid-March.
“We want to have collars on as many animals as possible,” he said. “That way, we can more easily monitor the elk on a day-to-day basis.
“Also, the GPS data collected from the collars are being used by a [West Virginia University] graduate student, Amber Evans, who is researching the animals’ home ranges and figuring out what habitat types they prefer to use.”
Armed with that knowledge, Kelley said he and his team “will be able to manipulate our management strategy to provide for the elk on lands we own and manage.”
“It’s a lot of work, and it’s a time-consuming job,” he admitted, “but it’s work that needs to be done.”