Elk Habitat and Movement Focus of Study

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In an effort to identify seasonal habitat use and movement patterns of elk wintering on Fossil Butte National Monument, 21 cow elk were captured and fitted with radio collars.

The three-year study is a cooperative project between the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center (NRMSC), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service (NPS) and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (G&F).

Ed Olexa, wildlife biologist with the USGS-NRMSC, says the study is necessary because multiple agencies share joint responsibility for management of elk in southwest Wyoming and any agency management practices will affect large areas of important elk habitat.

"Managers from MFossil Butte, BLM, and G&F need to know more about how these elk use the land year-round," says Olexa. "By collaring these elk we should be able to delineate elk winter range on the monument, identify the spatial structure of the population that utilizes the Mmonument, identify those areas critical to elk and most likely to be impacted by elk, and assist state efforts to obtain accurate annual population estimates."

Olexa says no suitable alternative to radio collaring currently exists to provide the detailed movement and habitat use data required for this study.

"Animal welfare, as well as human welfare, is of great concern to us, so the corral trap is the preferred means of capture for this project," he says.

Olexa says initial study efforts will be focused on Fossil Butte National Monument; however, additional elk may be captured on adjacent lands administered by other agencies with their approval, as resources and opportunities permit.

"Expanding our sampling on the adjacent lands in future years will allow for delineation of critical elk range prior to energy development and assessment of habitat use relative to scheduled prescribed burns and grazing systems," he added.

Fossil Butte Monument staff, G&F wardens, biologists and their families began baiting elk with hay into the trap site in mid-December and the elk trapping began mid-January.

Kemmerer G&F Wildlife Biologist Ron Lockwood said the elk were captured in the corral trap, fitted with radio collars or a neckband, ear tagged, blood taken and released.

"The corral was set up with a ‘bull excluder’ to minimize the chance of capturing mature bulls, allowing us to target cow elk," said Lockwood. "We did not use any immobilization drugs on the elk. There were workers from all the cooperating agencies and some volunteers handling the elk as quickly and humanely as possible."

Cow elk are being used in the study because biologists believe their movement patterns and habitat use are more representative of the herd than bulls.

The project calls for up to 25 elk to be radio-tracked for approximately three years using remote query Global Positioning System technology. The collars are equipped with VHS beacons and mortality and activity sensors. The collars will be removed via an automatic release mechanism or, if necessary and feasible, recapture.

Lockwood says collar information will be tracked on the ground and from the air. "The collars record a satellite location for each elk every four hours," he said. "We used snowmobiles to pack down a trail to the top of a ridge where staff from Fossil Butte can monitor the elk from the ground. In a couple of months, Ed will begin monitoring the collars from the air. "

Lockwood added the study will focus on the segment of the West Green River elk herd that spends part of the winter on the Mmonument, but the information collected will identify year-round habitat use on adjacent BLM lands.

"The West Green River elk herd is well-known to Wyoming hunters. The new information will allow us to be even more accurate with the annual population estimates of this important elk herd," Lockwood said. "In addition, managers at MFossil Butte National Monument and the BLM will be more effective with their land use practices affecting elk. The study is a ‘win-win situation,’ providing valuable information to state and federal land and wildlife managers, and benefiting elk hunters."