Montana State University

Isolated elk researchers enjoy social event of the season

March 21, 2006 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Wildlife experts collar elk along U.S. Highway 287 for a Montana State University research project. (MSU photo by Jay Thane).    High-Res Available

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BOZEMAN -- Jamin Grigg and Jesse Rawson don't see many people this time of year. Hiking, snowshoeing and driving, they shadow elk and wolves from sunup to sundown on public and private land between Yellowstone National Park and Ennis. From mid-December through April, they spend more time on the Sun Ranch than in their offices at Montana State University.

"It's kind of you and the elk and the wolves. It can be a pretty intense field season," said Grigg, who covers an average of five to 10 miles a day as he studies the animals and their behavior for his master's degree. Rawson is his technician.

The annual falling-of-the-collars and the need to replace them, however, recently brought some welcome human company.

As 2,000 elk grazed on the Carroll Ranch along U.S. Highway 287, a team of wildlife experts arrived to help place newly-charged radio collars and GPS collars on some of the animals. Many of the old collars had fallen off a couple of weeks earlier, having been programmed to do that after 52 weeks.

"This is the social event of the winter," Grigg said as he waited in his pickup truck with his dog, Ellie, for Mark Duffy of Bozeman to fly over in his helicopter. "It's kind of like a party for two or three days when everybody is here."

Finally arriving -- bucking a breeze that created a brutal windchill, Duffy skimmed over the elk like an airborne cowboy. Darting this way and that, dipping and swirling, he separated a few elk from the herd and moved his passengers close enough to dart two adult females through an open doorway.

"The pilot is just amazing getting these animals to go where he wants," Grigg said of Duffy. "It's really something to see. It's pretty impressive."

"The pilot is the one who makes this thing work. He's one of the best," Craig Jourdonnais, area wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said earlier in the day.

Driving over for a closer look, Grigg joined Jourdonnais and FWP veterinarian Mark Atkinson who had ridden with Duffy and landed near the downed elk. The men collared the elk, took a variety of samples to determine health and examined teeth to judge ages. Minutes later after an injection restored consciousness, the elk stood and looked around the snowy landscape to find the herd that was now grazing elsewhere. The collar crew returned to the air, and by the end of the next day, had collared 29 elk and one wolf.

It was a good two days, Grigg said after the group had shared steaks, yarns and returned to their regular duties. The GPS collars would let him know the elks' whereabouts every 30 minutes and the wolves' every three hours, Grigg said. That information, along with readings from the radio collars and observations in the field, would teach him more about elk biology and behavior in the southern end of the Madison Range. His study area lies northwest of Yellowstone National Park and extends into Idaho. His research would reveal which corridors the elk are taking, how they use the landscape and how the elk have changed their behavior over the last 20 years. His 2 1/2-year project addresses a variety of hotbed issues and involves MSU, six ranches, the Beaverhead National Forest, the Lee Metcalf Wilderness and several government agencies.

"I love it," Grigg said. "I have been fascinated with wildlife research since I was in high school, even before that. It's fascinating work."

Bob Garrott, an ecology professor and Grigg's advisor, said research has shown that elk behave much differently when they're inside and outside of Yellowstone National Park. Deep snow and high elevations force the elk to stay in small groups within the park. But 30 miles down river, the elevations are lower and the elk gather in large herds to graze the windswept grassland.

Researchers have also found that wolves follow elk onto private land during the winter, but stay there even after the elk move to the higher elevations of public land, Garrott said. That means wolves are around when cattle give birth.

Studies have found, too, that elk are leaving public land earlier during hunting season and moving onto private land, Garrott said. Since some of that private land is unavailable for hunting or open only to private hunts, he said elk numbers have gotten too high to accommodate them. Jourdonnais estimated that the east side of Madison Valley contains 4,500 to 5,000 elk.

One purpose of Grigg's study is to help officials figure out how to better manage the elk numbers, Garrott said.

A slide show of the elk collaring is located on the Web at http://www.montana.edu/cpa/gallery/060315/pages/page_1.html

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu