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Elk and Trappers
Locked in a Battle of Wits

February 17, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder
by Mike Thompson


Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) launched "Operation Winter Storm" upon the elk of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range on February 3.

So far, it hasn't been quite as effective as Operation Desert Storm, but it's still early.

Our strategy was to take 'em by surprise. It's been seven years since we last captured and collared elk on the Game Range. We thought the time was right to make a sneak attack.

We put our best man on it. Jamie began with a diversionary tactic last summer. He dismantled the old, wooden, corral trap at the edge of the big, open rangeland. Then he dismantled the more obscure trap of the same type on top of Boyd Mountain. He hauled both away, leaving nary a trace.

"They'll think we've pulled out entirely," Jamie mused, referring to his four-legged quarry.

But, instead of hauling the trap materials into storage, he quietly began building a new, "super trap," combining materials from both of the old traps, and adding new wood and rope for good measure. He picked a spot well away from either of the previous trap locations, nestled against a wall of pines in the bottom of Elk Basin.

What a surprise would await the Blackfoot-Clearwater Elk Herd when it arrived on the Game Range this winter!

Jamie left nothing to chance. He let the trap go unbaited and undisturbed by human hands for the first two months of winter. "Let 'em think we won't use it," he reasoned, chuckling maniacally.

Then, when the elk least expected it, Jamie snuck up to the trap on the evening of February 2, and set it.

What he failed to account for was the life span of a trap-wise elk. You see, even though seven years have passed since FWP's last trapping operation on the Game Range, there are a lot of cows out there that are 8, 9 and 10 years old or older. In fact, a 23-year-old cow elk was shot on the Game Range a few years back.

They've seen the likes of Jamie Jonkel before.

So, when Jamie and work-study student Shawn Cleveland checked their big, new, corral trap on the morning of February 3, they found . . .

Nothing. No elk.

But, all was not lost. Jamie had also set a couple of smaller, portable Clover traps in the timber at the base of Boyd Mountain. (They're called Clover traps because Mr. Clover invented them back in the 1950s.) And, his spirits soared when he and Shawn found an elk in the trap!

Jamie and Shawn set to work, hustling to collapse the trap on the elk and attach a rubberized plastic collar. Unfortunately, the incarcerated elk was also hustling, repeatedly testing the trap door for any sign of weakness.

Weakness was found. Before Jamie and Shawn could subdue the elk, she was able to work the door up and slip out underneath. The erstwhile elk trappers could only watch as their prize ambled off, triumphant.

So much for the element of surprise in Operation Winter Storm.

February 4 began with a generous dose of salt in wounds still fresh from the day before. The big, new, corral trap had captured numerous elk tracks, but no elk. The bait was all eaten, but the trip wire didn't trip.

I'm sure it was the work of elk subversives who bedeviled Mark Hurley, Ross Baty, Yours Truly and a host of other elk trappers in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But, a Clover trap proved effective once again, this time capturing an 8-month-old calf, who will listen to its mother next time.

Jamie and Shawn were ready. They made sure the trap door was securely shut and successfully subdued their elk and collared her. She now wears a very fashionable red collar with white asterisks. She also is the first calf on the block to have her ears piercedwith small metal eartags for permanent identification.

She's really gonna be in for it when her mother sees her.

Assuming she's not still grounded by the time we fly our helicopter surveys next January, this collared elk and others like her will help FWP determine if a high proportion of the elk population is concentrated in the survey area, as is necessary for a good census. She will also help us detect when elk are starting to disperse from the Game Range in future years if we are able to allow the elk population to continue increasing. That's when we'll want to respond with increased hunting harvest to prevent elk damage on private lands.

Yes, the first shots have been fired, and now it's war. Let's just hope the elk never start setting traps of their own.

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