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IDFG to fit cow elk with VHF radio collars

by Nick Rotunno
| December 16, 2010 8:00 PM

Hunting season has come and gone, but Idaho Fish and Game still has work to do this winter.

Down in the lower St. Joe country, IDFG plans to capture a number of cow elk, according to regional wildlife biologist Laura Wolf. Once caught, about 25 animals will be fitted with VHF radio collars, which provide valuable information on herd movement and cow survival rates.

"Survival of adult cows really drives elk populations," Wolf said. "When you only have 30 collars, you want (them) concentrated within one segment of the population."

There are two ways to capture elk, Wolf said. One method is by helicopter: Officials fly over a herd and shoot a net gun, wrapping up one of the animals. The elk is quickly collared and released.

"(Net-gunning) is quite a good way to do it," Wolf said. "Very low injury rate with that."

IDFG can also lure elk into a corral trap, Wolf said, using alfalfa as bait. The animals are then collared inside the trap.

In mid-February, a private helicopter crew will capture several cows near Avery, on the St. Joe, according to an e-mail from regional wildlife manager Jim Hayden. Additional elk will be corral trapped farther downstream.

The Coeur d'Alene Tribe will receive five collars, including two high-tech GPS units, for use in Unit 5, Hayden wrote. Unit 5 is predominately private land; the elk herds normally winter in agricultural fields. IDFG hopes to gather more information on the elk in that area, particularly where they're spending the autumn months.

Some Fish and Game collars are more technologically advanced than others, Wolf said. The GPS units can relay an animal's exact location at almost any time, whereas VHF collars require telemetry equipment, either on the ground or aboard a fixed-wing aircraft. GPS collars are more convenient, Wolf said, but also more expensive.

Collar data, along with information gathered from sportsmen and other sources, will help determine future IDFG management policies, such as hunting seasons and harvest limits.

Officials will try to keep 30-40 elk collars in the field over the next few years, Wolf said.

"It really gives us an idea of how the population is doing over time," she said. "Cow survival is one of the first things you want to know."

In addition to collaring, Fish and Game will conduct survey flights throughout the Panhandle, Hayden noted. IDFG will fly helicopter-based moose surveys over Unit 5, north of the Coeur d'Alene Reservation. Elk surveys will most likely occur in units 3, 4, 6, 7 and 9.

"When we do the helicopter flights, we can get calf, cow and bull ratios," Wolf said. "Animals tend to congregate on winter range, so they're not as spread out as in the summertime. And they tend to be a bit easier to see against the snow."

Using data from the flights, IDFG will have a better understanding of wildlife populations, movement, predation and habitat use.

Forward-looking infrared technology might also be utilized, Hayden wrote. A FLIR-eqipped aircraft can snap an infrared photograph, pinpointing the animals within a certain area.

"We're trying to look at ways we can reduce our reliance on helicopters to get data," Wolf said.

Other winter projects will take place near McArthur Lake, in Unit 1 north of Sandpoint, Hayden wrote. Black bears will be trapped and fitted with GPS collars, so officials can monitor their movements. They'll pay special attention to highway crossings in the area.

Moose kills along railroad tracks will also be documented.

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