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Elk in the Valley

This is the week the collared elk get their ‘check-ups’–sonogram, blood, and other indicators.  In order to do that, these elk need to be located and darted from a helicopter.  Then the biologists are lowered down, do their thing within just a few minutes, and are whisked away again to their next elk, while the elk is waking up.  This is the last year of a five year study to find out why the elks’ pregnancy rates are so low in my valley.

Helicopter getting ready

I’ve been watching them on and off as they work the valley.  The copter pilots are amazing.  They’re Kiwis, the best mountain copter pilots around.  With no doors, they dress in super warm suits, land in odd and uneven terrain, and maneuver quite close to trees, cliffs and mountain tops.

Watching them work, I couldn’t help but remember when I went river rafting on the South Island of New Zealand.  The rafting adventure began at the head of a glacier and in order to get there we needed to ferry all our equipment, including ourselves, by helicopter up the canyon.  I boarded the copter, fully expecting to fly above the canyon and set down on the glacier.  But instead, the pilot took off inside the narrow canyon, running those curves like a race car with the raft waving around tied below us.  The copter seemed to swing freely side to side, hanging by the propeller above.  It was so scary that I decided to just accept whatever might come and enjoy the fantastic ride.

Copter in my valley

One of the students explained that the biologists on board are from Oregon and pioneered these elk allocation studies.  Most of these elk are not residents.  In other words, they don’t live here year round.  Instead, they come in around January from the Park, snow pushing them towards warmer terrain.  Sometime around late April or May, they begin to make their way back into Yellowstone to have their calves.  From what the student heading the study tells me, 6 out of every 10 calves succumb to predators, mostly grizzlies coming out of hibernation with an appetite and the calves are easy prey in their first 10 days. 

But this study is looking at low pregnancy rates amongst this group.

I spent some time talking with one of the Game & Fish biologists about what’s being called sudden Aspen death in Colorado.  Reminds me of Sudden Oak Death (SOD) in California which I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about.   My own theory with SOD has to do with lack of fires.  Fires have been cleansing the soils in California (and the West) for thousands of years, clearing out fungus as well as competing undergrowth.

This biologist had worked in south WY and felt that the Aspens, bereft of fires, are in the process of a natural rejuvenative cycle so young clones can arise.  He told me a story about early settlers being angry at Native Americans in the Sierra Madres for setting fire to aged forests.  Those Indians gardened the landscape with fire as their tool, aiding the regenerative process in Aspens.  With a fire suppression policy blanketing the West for over 100 years, forest health has declined as well as quality of feed for our native ungulates.

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