New Elk Population Survey on the Horizon

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The Pennsylvania Game Commission is overhauling its elk surveying program to improve its ability to monitor population changes throughout the 835-square-mile elk range and save the agency tens of thousands of dollars annually.

The ongoing effort, which began in early 2003, is switching the former aerial survey into a ground operation for the first time since America celebrated its bicentennial. In 1992, after about 15 years of winter surveys involving a helicopter and ground crews of up to 60 people, the agency went to an aerial elk survey, to reduce manpower needs and provide scheduling flexibility. Now change is once again in the winds over the Allegheny Mountains.

"We're moving to a completely ground survey because it's the right thing to do," noted Cal DuBrock, Game Commission Bureau of Wildlife Management Director. "Our biologists have developed a more efficient and farther-reaching survey than what was in place. It will eliminate our dependency on snow cover to survey elk, provide uniform survey coverage of the entire elk range - not just the primary range - and won't require employees to take as many job-related risks on snowy roads and while in flight.

"Equally important is the money the Game Commission will save by converting to the ground survey. Right now, the agency is spending more than $30,000 annually to contract for aircraft to survey a quarter of the elk range and count groups of elk containing radio-collared elk on the rest. Using the current aerial method, it would cost more than $100,000 each year to survey our entire elk range. And the results wouldn't be anymore scientifically valid than what the new ground survey will provide. Making this move is a necessity and it will immediately improve the management of Pennsylvania's elk."

The new ground survey, developed by Game Commission biologists Dr. Christopher S. Rosenberry and Jon M. DeBerti, will be conducted in the fall and aims to use mostly agency employees while they perform their regularly-assigned duties. The switch from a winter to fall survey will provide an accurate distribution of Pennsylvania's elk herd closest to the elk hunting season, which is the wildlife agency's chief management tool. That will help the Game Commission direct hunting pressure where it is most needed.

The fall survey will occur at a time when elk groups are more representative of the population. Antlered bulls are not off in small, less visible bachelor groups, separated from groups of adult females and calves. With the fall breeding season approaching, adult females and bulls are more tolerant of one another and tend to be in more open areas. That creates perfect surveying conditions and strongly supports the timing change being implemented.

"The only good reason to hold the survey in winter was the improved elk visibility created by snow cover and the absence of leaves on trees and shrubs," explained DeBerti. "That advantage is not as important as it once was, because we're no longer using aircraft. Since our elk herd has grown and expanded its range, we're just as interested in determining where these animals are as we are in estimating their population."

Game Commission biologists are using a surveying technique called "Bowden's estimator" to measure the elk herd's size and distribution. Originally developed for Colorado moose, the process takes place over several weeks and involves counting the number of elk marked with radio collars and the number of elk without radio collars. Because individual identification of marked elk is needed for this method, radio collars have large, visible numbers on them.

Work to collar elk for the new survey began in January 2003. About 40 elk have been collared to date and field crews will work to have more collared elk spread across the state's elk range, which covers parts of Elk, Cameron, Clinton, Clearfield and Potter counties, in future surveys. Biologists will dart and collar adult females until mid-March; bulls, anytime, except during the fall breeding season.

Field researchers collaring elk for the new survey also are making a heightened effort to dart and collar spike bulls, according to Rosenberry.

"Recent elk population modeling efforts indicate that spikes are either being undercounted in the current survey or are experiencing significant mortality. By placing telemetry collars on these young bulls, we'll be able to monitor more closely their activities - as well as mortality - and possibly determine whether daily or seasonal movements are affecting their visibility."

The Game Commission has been using a team of biologists, biologist aides and Wildlife Conservation Officers to dart and collar elk. In the process, four-wheel drive vehicles are used to get a shooter close to elk. Elk are darted in a hind quarter with a drug-loaded, two- to three-inch dart shot from a dart rifle powered by a .22-caliber rifle charge from distances of 30 to 50 yards.

"Darted elk are usually on the ground in five minutes or less," explained Rosenberry. "Once we're confident the animal is immobilized, we approach and place a mask over its eyes. Then, we radio collar and ear-tag the animal. During this process, someone monitors the elk's heart rate with a stethoscope to ensure it doesn't have a negative reaction to the drug we've administered. After the animal has been processed, we administer an antidote and the elk is back on its feet in about five minutes."

The dart and collaring effort has received considerable assistance from a variety of sources.

"There's no way we could have come as far as we have with this new program without the help of our local Wildlife Conservation Officers, Land Management Officers and food and cover corps members, not to mention region office support and assistance from the state Bureau of Forestry and several private landowners," emphasized DeBerti. "Our progress is indicative of the support we've had and continue to receive. These people have really come through for us."

But even with a fine supporting cast, it hasn't been easy darting and collaring elk, particularly in eastern areas of the elk range - around Karthaus, Tamarack and Sinnemahoning - where wary elk retreat into more remote areas when approached by people or vehicles.

“It's been a challenge trying to dart elk in the eastern range, because the elk there are wilder and more elusive than almost anywhere else," DeBerti said. "It's pleasing to see these animals responding to intrusions the way they do, because it indicates they're as wild as elk can come. But I'm ok with that. It just means we have to work harder and longer to get the job done."

Right now, Pennsylvania's elk population numbers between 500 and 600 elk, based upon a pilot survey last fall and historical data collection. About 100 calves are expected to be born this spring. The herd's distribution has been relatively the same for the past five or six years, but there have been density increases in some areas and light expansion into new areas. The population has had 156 elk removed from it through hunting over the past three years, primarily in areas where elk densities are above goals established in the state's elk management plan. Other known mortality - such as road-kills and crop-kills - has claimed an additional 116 elk.

The state's first genuine fall elk survey will occur this September and will involve about a dozen people, mostly agency personnel, but it also may include individuals from the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. It will be conducted over the course of a month, which is quite a departure from the former winter format of a couple days.

Elk were found throughout Pennsylvania prior to its colonization. Their numbers declined as civilization advanced, mostly as a result of unregulated hunting and deforestation. Elk disappeared by the late 1800s. The wild elk inhabiting Pennsylvania today are descendents of elk released in Cameron, Centre, Clearfield, Clinton, Elk and Potter counties from 1913 to 1926. A total of 177 elk - mostly from Yellowstone National Park - were released in the Commonwealth to serve as a breeding base for what was hoped would develop into a population that could sustain hunting. Elk were hunted from 1923 to 1931, and then received closed-season protection from 1932 through 2000.