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 4-year Study To Track Movement Of Elk, Wolves
Elffster
Posted: Dec 19 2006, 07:26 PM


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By RUFFIN PREVOST
Gazette Wyoming Bureau

CODY - The Wyoming Game and Fish Department will embark next month on an ambitious four-year study of elk movement and migration that will include tracking wolves and their impact on elk.

The Absaroka Elk Ecology Project, budgeted at around $450,000, will gather information about the Clarks Fork elk herd unit, and might answer some puzzling questions biologists have about why elk are faring differently in neighboring regions around Cody.

Doug McWhirter, a biologist with the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish, is one of the project's principal investigators. He expects information from the study to help in setting elk hunting seasons and limits, defining elk habitats, improving management efforts on private lands and mitigating the impact of wolf predation on elk herds.

"Through our population monitoring efforts, we're seeing some things we don't fully understand," said McWhirter. "We need to collect information to determine what is going on." Part of the mystery surrounds fluctuating numbers for cow-calf ratios in different sections of the Clarks Fork herd unit, he said, with fewer calves showing up over the last 10 years.

While wolves are suspected of having an influence in that decline, McWhirter said grizzly bears, drought and human activity and development also may play a role, and the study is aimed at sorting out those factors.

Calf numbers have been declining over the past decade in the Sunlight Basin area, but McWhirter said they are at healthy levels in the neighboring area around the Two Dot Ranch.

"Over the last five years, there has been a tremendous divergence" in calf numbers in the neighboring populations, he said, calling the trend "perplexing."

McWhirter said both regions have wolves, grizzly bears and people present, and both allow elk hunting, although the numbers for each factor aren't equivalent.

Another question the project addresses is the changing nature of elk migration and movement patterns.

Until the mid-1980s, McWhirter said, elk typically migrated into Yellowstone Park in the summer, returning to winter range in lower elevations outside the park.

But recent trends have shown increasing numbers of resident elk, which may move around a relatively small area, but typically don't migrate in and out of Yellowstone Park.

"So there's been a trend over the last 25 years to seeing more and more elk than we ever did before on private lands," he said. "That has set up some conflicts with private landowners over forage use and other things that have become the topic of quite a bit of controversy."

The study is set to start next month with the capture of 60 adult female elk, which will be fitted with collars that gather data from the Global Positioning System.

Leading Edge Aviation of Lewiston, Idaho, will spend two days in mid-January using helicopters and net guns to capture and collar elk from several winter range locations between the South Fork of the Shoshone River and the Montana border.

Biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service will capture and collar six wolves, including two from each of the three resident wolf packs within the Clarks Fork elk herd unit.

The collars will collect and store GPS data on the location of animals throughout the year. Elk collars will, at times, pinpoint their location as often as every three hours, eventually collecting up to 6,000 locations for each elk.

McWhirter said collared animals that die or leave the study area will be replaced.

Other variables studied will include weather, forage production and habitat type, including slope and elevation.

Together, the data should present a picture of where, when and why elk travel, along with the role of wolves, habitat and humans in driving those choices.

Similar studies have been conducted since the 1950s in parts of Wyoming and Montana, including a 1996 study by Game and Fish biologist Kevin Hurley that looked at elk migrations from Yellowstone Park to the south side of Carter Mountain.

But McWhirter said the Absaroka Elk Ecology Project will be the first such study covering the region east of Yellowstone Park to include matching data on wolves since their reintroduction to the region.

The study covers a wide range of public and private lands, and will involve cooperation from numerous landowners and government agencies, said McWhirter.

Private groups cooperating with the study include the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, Bowhunters of Wyoming and the Cody Country Outfitters and Guides Association.

McWhirter said funding has been secured for the first year of the project, which covers most of the costs of purchasing radio collars and other equipment, but the study must raise around $50,000 annually over the next three years.
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