by Phil Cooper – IDFG
IDAHO PANHANDLE — Many people think that fish and game field work slows down in the winter after the hunting seasons end.
When I started in natural resource work 33 years ago, that was somewhat accurate. In those days, things slowed down in January and February. That was the time when you went inside and finished reports, labeled and filed slides (who remembers slides now that images are all digital?), gave presentations, manned exhibits at sports shows and made work plans for the next field season.
It is not like that anymore. Thank heavens! Fish and wildlife data collection is in full swing in the winter. Some of the data collection work done by Idaho Fish and Game (IDFG) can be best accomplished with snow on the ground because with snow cover, animals are more visible and somewhat concentrated for aerial population surveys. Winter has become as significant a research season as the summer.
IDFG wildlife biologists will soon be working with a private helicopter contractor in the field capturing and collaring elk. The operation will begin January 19th in the Coeur d’Alene and the St. Joe river drainages. Cow and calf elk are being fitted with radio collars to monitor their survival rates and movements.
The plan is to collar and follow about 100 elk so that IDFG can monitor habitat use, seasonal movements and survival rates. In this study, cow and calf elk are being captured with either nets or tranquilizer darts depending upon the terrain and density of the forest.
Once an animal is restrained or under anesthesia, a handler fits the animal with a GPS collar, collects blood and fecal samples (for disease and pregnancy surveillance), and estimates each animal’s age. The elk is then released at the capture site a few minutes later. The capture operation will take several days of good flying weather. So if you see a helicopter circling in the skies at a low elevation in the Coeur d’Alene drainage or the St Joe over the next few weeks, it is likely part of this study.
Location, location, location
The GPS collars that are attached will record the animal’s location once per day and the collars will function for several years. The location, time and other pertinent data are transmitted to a satellite and then to biologists as a weekly email.
Prior to the development of GPS collars, biologists had to use an antenna in hand or on a plane to determine an animal’s location. Most locations operations were usually conducted during the middle of the day during weather that allows safe flights and good visibility.
Now, location data is taken regardless of weather and time of day giving a better picture of habitat uses and requirements.
A warning signal is produced if the collared elk is stationary for six hours, tipping biologists off that there may be an elk mortality and allowing the collar be located as soon as possible so biologists can attempt to determine the cause of death.
New technology, such as GPS collars, has changed wildlife management over time. New equipment and techniques have enabled better data collection and a better understanding of what is actually happening outside in all kinds of weather in both daylight and dark…all year long.