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High-flying action helps biologists learn about elk health

Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2002

AFTON, Wyo. (AP) -- Snow billows as the helicopter swoops toward panicked elk, like an eagle going for a rabbit.

A gunner packing a 20-pound net gun stands on the helicopters landing skid and leans heavily into his chest harness, waiting for the elk to move into the gun's sight window.

Like a cowboy cutting cows on a well-broken horse, the helicopter pilot cuts an elk from the herd and moves the aircraft into position.

The .308 caliber blank explodes and a 14-foot square net, anchored with one-pound weights in each corner, settles over the head and shoulders of the running cow.

Feet pounding through chest-deep snow tangle in the nylon cord and the 500-pound animal crashes to a snow-covered bed in the foothills along the eastern border of Idaho, west of Afton, Wyo.

Other elk in the herd run for the cover of trees. Those who don't make it are targeted and the gunship takes up the chase as the gunner loads another net onto his gun. As the aircraft clears the area, the netted cow elk struggles. Another helicopter loaded with Department of Fish and Game employees moves to the capture site. Three workers, loaded down with blinders, needles, radio collars, hobbles and ear tags, climb from the craft. As the chopper pulls away they move in and go to work.

Fish and Game was able to secure funding from the Department of Agriculture after a cow elk's blood sample gathered by a hunter tested positive for brucellosis in hunting Unit 76, between Soda Springs and the Wyoming line.

''The main reason we are doing this is to draw the blood to test for brucellosis,'' says Carl Anderson, Fish and Game regional biologist. ''We will also check to see if the animal is pregnant and perform a few other general health tests.

''This study is going to help us learn more about the elk population and its relative health,'' he says. ''Were using this opportunity to put radio collars on the elk to learn more about their migrational patterns and the areas of most use. We have also received the funding to do a population survey on the elk in the area, so we have a general idea on how many animals we have here.''

The study allowed the department to trap 50 elk from Freedom, Wyo., to Geneva Summit, near Montpelier.

''The reason we picked this area along the Wyoming border is because the only source of brucellosis in elk are from those animals congregated on feed grounds,'' Anderson says. ''Brucellosis is mainly transmitted when another elk comes in contact with the embryonic fluid.''

From the information gathered and the installing of radio collars on the elk, the study will also enable Fish and Game to glean other important information.

''The greatest benefit from the study for us, is so we might have a better idea which areas have the best habitat for elk,'' says Anderson. ''We will be able to design hunting seasons and it will help us make decisions on permit levels, because we will know the number of elk in the area.''

Steps biologist take when gathering data on trapped cow elk:

After the elk has been netted, the biologist moves in and the rodeo begins.

First a blindfold is placed over the elks eyes. This will help keep the animal quiet. Then hobbles are placed to hold the animal secure and keep workers from being kicked. A two-foot leather strap is wrapped first around one front leg and then the other, then pulled tight through a brass buckle. This secures the front legs. The same is done to the hind legs and then all four are pulled together and hooked.

Blood is then taken from the animals jugular vein. Two small vials of blood will determine if the animal is brucellosis free and if she is pregnant.

A radio collar is then placed around the animals neck. The transmitter is guaranteed for four years, but generally will last six or seven years.

A two-inch wide strap and two aircraft bolts with locking nuts hold the collar in place. The collar is placed tight enough to help keep the animal from getting hung up, but loose enough not to restrict breathing.

Ear tags are placed both in the collar and in the animals ear.

The animal is then aged by its teeth.

Releasing the animal without getting kicked is the hard part. The large net must be removed. Hobbles are taken off and each leg is pulled free of the webbing. Then the head is pulled through the net, the blinders are taken off and the elk is set free.

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