|March 6, 2014
Tribal Elk Research Projects Examines Elk Movements and Habitat Use
The Tribal Wildlife Management Program initiated a research project to document seasonal elk movements and habitat use on the Flathead Indian Reservation in 2012, with the capture of fifteen elk in the Ferry Basin and Niarada areas. The project, which had been a high priority for Tribal Wildlife Biologists for many years, proved difficult to obtain funding for until recently. One fourth of the project is being funded by the Tribal Wildlife Management Program, and the remainder is being provided by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Federal Aid to Wildlife Restoration through a cooperative agreement with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Elk were located based upon recent field observations and scouting by aircraft at several locations around the Reservation. When Tribal Wildlife Biologists located elk, they contacted the helicopter capture crew, who then flew to the area and initiated the capture. The elk were captured by personnel of Leading Edge Aviation, a professional wildlife capture firm, using net guns that fire a large net from a helicopter to catch the elk and slow its movements. A two-man capture crew, referred to as muggers, then leap from the helicopter and blindfold and restrain the animal. Each elk is examined quickly and blood samples and measurements are taken, then it is fitted with a GPS radio collar. Handling time is efficient and kept to a minimum to limit stress on the animal. Surprisingly, once secured, the elk are relatively docile during the collaring operation. Each collar is programmed to transmit location data to orbiting satellites at specific time intervals. The data is then transmitted to a receiving station and then on to the Tribal Wildlife Management Program.
The first phase of the project, completed during the winter of 2012, has provided a large number of locations. While many of the fifteen elk are year-round residents of the Reservation and areas immediately adjacent, other animals have exhibited substantial seasonal movements. For example, three cow elk moved up to approximately 28 miles north and spent the following summer and give birth to their calves in the Trego and Marion areas. Monitoring of the elk has also
provided biologists with information on mortality. Of the fifteen elk radio-tagged, five are now dead - two were killed by predators, one was taken legally by a hunter, one was killed illegally, and the cause of death of the fifth is unknown.
Tribal wildlife personnel are very pleased with the way that the project was completed. The entire operation took approximately eight hours, with no injuries to either elk or personnel. The weather also cooperated, providing nearly perfect visibility and wind conditions. Tribal Wildlife Program Manager Dale Becker noted that the “Tribal Wildlife staff and the personnel from Leading Edge Aviation worked like a very efficient team to complete the project.” As time passes, the data that is gained from the project will provide us with a much clearer understanding of elk ecology and habitat use both on the Reservation and in adjacent habitats. That information will assist in elk management for some time to come.