Elk Capture Complete

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Michigan Department of Natural Resources officials recently announced completion an elk capture operation in Michigan, as part of the department’s work to monitor the health and habits of elk.

The elk capture operation ran from Feb. 9-12 near Atlanta. Biologists were aided by a fixed-wing spotter plane to locate the herds and a helicopter crew to drive the animals into open areas and subdue individual elk with nets fired from a special net gun. Once ensnared, the animals were subdued by field researchers. The operation captured 20 bulls and 20 cows, achieving its research goal.

“Researchers used to employ tranquilizer darts to immobilize elk and moose for this kind of work,” said DNR biologist Dean Beyer, “but the sedatives put dangerous stress on the animals. This method involves more danger to the people, but helps guarantee the health and safety of the elk.”

Captured elk were fitted with radio collars, provided a field checkup for basic health signs, and given an antibiotic shot. Scientists took hair, blood and fecal samples to help assess the overall health of Michigan’s 800-900 elk. Beyer said the capture operation, caught on film for future educational purposes, sometimes feels like its own project but is actually just the beginning of the research.

“The elk project has two main objectives,” he said. “First, we will use the radio collars to develop a more efficient and effective population survey technique. The elk range in Michigan has increase by about 50% since the late 1980s, and our combined aerial and ground searches don't always produce reliable estimates.

“The second objective is to determine elk movement patterns in the southeast portion of the range, which is adjacent to the TB core area. Understanding elk movements and potential interactions with deer in this area will help us assess the risk of disease transmission and will help us develop management strategies to address problems.”

The research is a joint project with Michigan State University. Substantial financial support is provided by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Michigan’s native elk disappeared around 1875. Today’s elk herd dates back to 1918, when seven western animals were released near Wolverine. From that reintroduction, the number of animals grew steadily to about 1,500 elk in the early 1960s. In January 2002, the number of elk was estimated to be between 800-850 animals, concentrated in a range that includes portions of Montmorency, Otsego, Cheboygan and Presque Isle counties.

The state’s goal is a winter herd of 800 to 900 elk. To maintain the herd in balance with its natural food supplies and with the needs of landowners, limited elk hunting has been allowed since 1984.

The state’s elk herd also makes its four-county range in the state’s northern-lower peninsula a popular tourist destination, where thousands of families visit each year to observe wild elk roaming roadside fields and hilly terrain.