A new study to learn more about adult elk death rates and causes began this week with the capture of 64 elk in the Blue Mountains of southeast Washington by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologists.
The elk were captured in the Lick Creek, Tucannon, and Dayton units of the Blues, in portions of Asotin, Garfield, and Columbia counties. The capture operation used tranquilizing drugs shot from a helicopter and ground crews, including WDFW veterinarians, to handle the animals. Sixty were fitted with radio telemetry equipment to allow monitoring of their movements and detection of their deaths. Biologists also took blood and tooth samples from each for determination of age, general health, and DNA identification.
Four of the elk captured died -- three adult bulls and one spike or yearling bull. Since it is illegal to possess non-shed antlers from such animals, the antlers of the adult bulls were removed by WDFW biologists and will be used for education.
"We never want to lose any animals when we do this kind of work and we do everything in our power to prevent losses," explained WDFW district wildlife biologist Pat Fowler of Walla Walla. "But wildlife capture work is not like handling cattle in a pen. Wild animals can react unexpectedly to tranquilizing drugs or handling, possibly because of poor condition or general health problems undetected before capture."
The study, which is expected to continue for three years, is also designed to learn about the habitat factors involved in adult elk mortality. Biologists hope to understand how differences in private and public land habitat, road densities, and other factors make elk vulnerable to legal harvest, poaching, predation, disease, and other causes of death.
WDFW conducted an elk study in the Blues from 1990 to 1994, but it focused on habitat use and calf mortality.