FLAGSTAFF, AZ. — The sound of a chopper blades cutting through the air in the distance is the signal for a ground crew to get ready. Soon in view, the helicopter tethers an unusual load beneath its belly and seconds later the noisy machine gently places a full grown elk on the ground only a few feet away from a waiting livestock trailer. The crew of biologist jump into action.
“We’re putting radio collars on all of them,” said Chris Ryan, Biologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. “It all happens pretty fast.”
The elk are being rounded up this week from a remote region about 40 minutes east of Flagstaff, Arizona on state and national forest lands. The herd will eventually become the next elk to be reintroduced in southern West Virginia. The roundup comes after an agreement between the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to assist in the reintroduction of elk in the Mountain State.
“We caught 29 the first day, 25 cows and four bulls. All were fitted with GPS collars, West Virginia ear tags, metal USDA tags, microchips, and we collected DNA samples,” explained Ryan about the workup being done on each animal. “The goal is catch 60 with 50 cows and 10 bulls.”
High winds are in the forecast for Thursday, so the crews from Arizona Game and Fish along West Virginia DNR personnel and volunteers worked from daylight to dark hoping to complete the collection by Wednesday evening. West Virginia’s crew included five DNR employees and Director Steve McDaniel.
Arizona personnel used a fixed wing aircraft to spot elk from above and direct helicopters into place. Nets were fired over the animals and they were then quickly sedated, hobbled, bagged up, and air lifted back to a staging area according to Ryan.
“Taking out refueling time and getting the elk bag back to the pilot, we average about four an hour,” Ryan explained. “They’ve seen people before and they’re actually very calm when we put them into the trailer for transportation to a holding pen.”
Once the last the elk is collected and in the pen, the counter starts on a 30 day quarantine for a battery of disease testing. At the end of the 30 days, the elk will be loaded onto livestock trucks and brought to West Virginia for release on the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area in Logan County.
The Arizona elk will be added to just over two dozen elk which were captured and released from Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Kentucky. In addition to the 60 elk headed to West Virginia from Arizona, another 17 will also be garnered from L-B-L for a second straight year in an agreement recently announced between West Virginia and the U.S. Forest Service.