Pennsylvania Elk

Earlier this week I was in DuBois, Pennsylvania for the 2011 Eastern Elk Management Workshop. Every year elk scientists and managers of elk in eastern states meet to discuss current elk herd statuses and research. I attended last year when it was held in Knoxville, TN as a first-year grad student. This year I got to return and present my research project. It was such a fantastic trip and I feel so lucky to be in elk research. Talking to elk biologists from around the eastern US gave me an incredible opportunity to get a feeling for how my research fits into the big scheme of things. Along with technical presentations, socializing and discussing elk management, we also got the chance to see some Pennsylvania elk up close. Elk can be easily seen at dawn and dusk hours from the many observation outlooks on Winslow Hill in Benezette, PA.

Elk were completely extirpated from the Eastern US in the late 1800’s. Many states reintroduced elk herds including Arkansas, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Today there are approximately 800 elk roaming Penn’s Woods. You can read more about the history of PA elk on the Game Commissionwebsite. Today’s reintroductions and management would not be possible without the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (so if you love to see elk in the wild, consider becoming a member!)

In Pennsylvania, reclaimed coal strip mines make up a lot of the state game land elk habitat. PA Game Commission along with other partners put a HUGE amount of work into transforming carved out mountaintops into habitat that is lush and alive.

It’s quite beautiful but they are still dealing with (and will be for decades) water seeping from the old mines. This water is very high in Iron and the pH is around 2-3 which is too acidic for for anything to live in the streams. Through lime enhancement and settling ponds, the Game Commission has brought life back to some streams and downstream there are successful bass and trout fisheries!

The Game Commission has also helped to create a wetland complex, which was currently being utilized by some mallards and Canada Geese.

Recently opened is the new Pennsylvania Elk Country Visitor’s Center.

It is absolutely the most beautiful elk center in the east. Looks like it belongs in Yellowstone!

With a trail system, panoramic views of elk country, a fireplace, “4D” theater, interactive displays, and a room full of antlers, hides, and other hands-on elk stuff this Visitor’s Center continually took my breath away!

Towards the end of the afternoon we started to see some elk through the haze.

Signs warn observers to keep their distance.

This cow was rather interested in our giant bus!

This tagged and collared beauty was standing just inside the tree line.

On our last stop of the day we got to see a big herd grazing. I had a great time in PA! Everyone was super nice and enthusiastic. And seeing elk is always a great pleasure!

Deer Trapping

I am a wildlife graduate student studying elk habitat selection. All of the elk field work was completed before I started my project and all of my work is done in a Geographic Information System (GIS). While I don’t have any field work for my own research I am a part of a deer trapping team. This team includes 4 of us graduate students and 2 program technicians. The deer trapping happens in Choctaw Island Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and Deer Research Unit. We trap deer to take measurements and put a GPS radio collar on them. Then for the following year we collect locations from the collars via satellites. After about a year the collars are remotely triggered to drop and we go collect them from the field.

So how do we trap deer?

We set up 10 drop nets in different habitat types across the WMA. The drop nets are 60×60 feet and held up by 5 poles and a series of ropes, pulleys, and cables.

Setting up the Trigger Pole

The trigger pole is where all the ropes come together and attach to the trigger mechanism.

View from the Trigger Pole to the Blind

A rope is connected to a the trigger mechanism. The rope is then run to the blind where we sit and wait for a deer to come under the drop net. The trigger rope is pulled, the trigger is released, and the net drops.

Putting rice bran out for bait.

We get the deer to come under the drop net by baiting with rice bran. It takes a few days for the deer to start visiting the bait but once they do they clean it out!

Watching the net from the blind. You can see the bait pile in the center.

We check bait piles to find which nets are being visited and choose 2 drop-net sites to watch, about 3 times a week. We get into the blinds around 4pm and stay until we drop.

Hogs in the night vision.

When the sun sets we use night vision to watch the nets. Of course, not only deer like the rice bran. We commonly get birds, opossums, raccoons and even skunks visiting the sites. These native small animals don’t stay long and don’t disrupt the deer. But the animals that do disrupt deer movement? Feral hogs. To read more about the problems Arkansas has with feral hogs click here. While our main objective is to collar deer, if we get a large group of hogs, we will drop and dispatch them.

Our first deer of the season!

But the fun happens when we get a deer under the net!! This was my first night trapping deer and we dropped on this year-and-a-half buck.  The moments before pulling the trigger rope my heart was racing.  Once this buck put his nose into the bait, my coworker told me to “Drop it!” and I riped the trigger rope up!  As soon as the net dropped we flew out of the blind to get on top of the deer.

The net is incredibly heavy and knocked his spike antlers off, which is ok because he would be dropping them in the next few weeks anyways. The first thing we do is jump on the deer and put a hood over its eyes. The hood really helps keep the deer calm and the calmer they are the less of a chance they have of injuring themselves.

Attaching a radio collar.

Once we’ve got the deer under control, we quickly “work them up” which involves taking body condition measurements, sexing and aging. Then we attach a plastic tag and metal tag to the deer’s ears.

My first deer!

When we are on top of them we actually keep all of our weight in our knees.  That way if the deer tries to buck we can shift our weight to keep them down but we aren’t continually putting weight on their chest.  In this picture I am holding the hood down and keeping this buck from kicking and getting further tangled, but all my weight is in my knees and feet.

Checking for breathing.

We have to continually check to be sure their heart rate is not too high and that they are breathing. We generally do not sedate or anesthetize the deer. Sedation just adds another variable and another chance for things to go wrong for the animal. If we have a lot of deer under the net and not enough people, or a really large and aggressive buck, we will sedate with Acepromazine which will not put them to sleep but calm then down a little.

Working up an 8-point

On our second night of trapping, we dropped on this big boy along with two other bucks. Big boy turned out to be an 8-point. Usually the first thing we do with a big buck is remove their antlers. At this time of the year the rut has ended and the males are getting ready to drop their antlers. Sawing the antlers off is not painful for the deer. And it is a necessity for both our safety and the deer’s safety. Even if we get the collar on before removing the antlers, they still need to be removed before we release the deer because he could turn back and charge us.

My second buck!

Tagged, collared, tattooed and out of the net, ready to go!

This was our last deer of the night so we were all helping to work it up. We tattoo their ears too, thats what that green ink is. What takes the longest is getting them out of the net but once we do they spring off the ground and disappear back into the woods.

Post-trapping picture!

At the end of our second trap night we’d collared 5 bucks and dispatched 2 hogs. Everyone was still blown away by the 8-point and we all took pictures with the antlers! The antlers will go back to the wildlife lab to be weighed.

My first trap nights were amazing and I can’t wait to get back out to the blind! We’ve got 5 down, and 25 more collars to go out!

Second to Last Semester

Sitting here in an empty office, fighting off a cold, I’m reflecting on the end of this semester.  I can’t believe I just finsished my 3rd semester of grad school.  Only one more to go and I’ll be released into the real world!  Eek.  In undergrad at LSU, I spent my last 3 years preparing for graduation.  Constantly updating my resume, networking, emailing professors all over the southeast.  I was so excited and ready to take the next step!  But now… I don’t wanna enter the real world!  I mean sure, it’ll be great to be making enough money to feed myself AND pay bills but I’m going to miss school!  It’s all I’ve known for the last 21 years of my life.  And it finally feels REAL, I won’t be in school anymore after next May.  Of course that doesn’t mean I won’t go back to get my PhD, but I won’t be doing that in South Texas because we only plan to live down there for 2-3 years. 

This was a pretty good semester.  I really enjoyed my class (Large Mammal Ecology and Management) and learned a lot about myself and what I want in my career.  I know I would be happiest if I could work with both handling wildlife and doing public outreach.  Which is funny cause my Master’s project has involved neither.  Its been all GIS and Statistics.  Which I also enjoy, but there is nothing like seeing a someone’s face light up as the get to pet an alligator or snake you’re holding.

Next May I’ll finish my grad coursework and hopefully by August I’ll have my Master of Science in Wildlife Ecology and Management.  I can’t believe its so close.  And I can’t believe I actually have to start looking for a big-girl job now 😛