Local couple filling
gaps in elk research

Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles
by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder


July 12, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson


I'm sorry Mr. and Mrs. Keller, but according to our records, that collared elk you saw standing on your property the other day has been dead for at least three years.

Well, even I have too much pride to deliver that kind of response without digging deeper. But, there it was in black and white, at the top of page 244 in the final report of the Chamberlain Creek Elk Studies, dated June 1998: "Elk #1, sex female, captured on January 21, 1993, south of Highway 200, near Clearwater Junction. Age at time of capture was 5.5 years. Fate is D." A search through the footnotes revealed what I expected. "D" stands for dead.

It all had begun innocently enough, with a pleasant email message from John and Pam.

Hi Mike. Tuesday [last week] at 5 A.M., a few elk walked up the driveway, on the north side of the house, and into the Forest Service property [about 10 miles north of Seeley Lake]. Later, at 6:30 A.M., a group of nine elk and three calves (with spots) were hanging out on the south side of our house. We tend to think it was not the same group, as they would have had to walk back down the drive, and then come back up on the other side of the house! Of the nine, two were spikes.

Of interest, was that one of the cows was wearing a collar. I don't know if we are supposed to report those sightings, but she was wearing an all white collar that had a black circle with a diagonal line drawn through it. There were three such circlesright, left and on the top of the collar. Her behavior indicated that she was the lead cow. She was larger than the others, as well.

If you have the time, and know anything about this collared cow elk, it would be interesting for us to hear about her. Thanks.

Of course, if John or Pam had my job, they would just type the observational data into some kind of computerized search engine and come up with all the possible combinations of cow elk that have worn a white collar with black circles and diagonals. This would quickly narrow the field from several hundred possibilities to a handful. Then, we'd use the computer to sort through thousands of radio relocations, survey observations and kill reports to eliminate the ones that were killed by hunters or had never been known to use the area north of Seeley Lake until we were left with the single correct answer.

Unfortunately, the wages of my propensity for hustling from project to project are a file cabinet and boxes full of old elk capture records, situated within reach of the computer that yearns to reduce half a ton of paper and metal into a small fistful of bits and bytes. In the meantime, the only search engine I've got is of the slow, clumsy and fleshy variety. So, I refueled it with a Hershey bar and Coke and let 'er rip.

One pass through the first paper file turned up nothing of substance, but did raise a question that I hoped would buy me time. Hurriedly, I replied with a short email to the Kellers:

Did it look like a white collar made of flattened PVC pipe, or was it a strip of rubberized or flexible plastic material? The PVC collar would have some rigid looking corners and some fat, rounded areas on it, whereas the plastic neckband would just be flat on the neck. Thanks!

Then I ran off to my appointments for the day. When I returned, so had the reply from John and Pam. It was an emailed photo of the elk. Although the image was a little grainy from being enlarged, I could see the outline of the collar well enough to be quite certain it was a radio collar made of PVC pipe.

So, it was back to the files. My earlier search had been confined to data from elk capture operations that occurred on the Game Range. This was certainly reasonable because at least 90 percent of the elk that you might see within a 10-15 mile radius of Seeley Lake are elk that spend winter on the Game Range.

But this time, as luck would have it, one of the first records I grabbed was from a capture operation along the south side of Highway 200 in January 1993, when the Chamberlain study was just getting started. And, there was the symbol I'd been searching forthe black circle with a diagonal slash through it!

Kewl! But, it's been quite a while since 1993, and the elk was already thought to be 5 years old by that time. How would I know if this particular elk was still alive, and still wearing its collar?

That's when I consulted the appendix in the Chamberlain Study final report and found the dreaded "D."

Now, if you'd never worked in this outfit before, you might have been unduly influenced by the insinuation that Elk #1 may indeed be dead. I, on the other hand, having been in this business for some 21 years, and having personal knowledge of the many paths to error that the most impressive and meticulous reports must negotiate, was not for a moment deterred.

I pulled the Chamberlain Creek file and found an earlier progress report, where more details on the life history of Elk #1 were printed. It turns out that Elk #1 traveled north to the Game Range almost immediately after it was captured, which was in the opposite direction of the Chamberlain Creek Study Area. So, no effort was made to study this animal, and no radio relocations were obtained.

As it turns out, "D" should have stood for "don't know."

I flipped through my file on reports of dead collared elk and found no reference to Elk #1. But, we still lacked conclusive evidence that she lives, and could be the cow elk at Keller's house.

Then, the light came on, as it does on rare occasions. Smugly, I pulled the raw data from this year's helicopter survey of the Game Range. Sure enough, I had noted an observation of the PVC collar with a circle and slash in a group of 457 elk on the morning of January 5th , not knowing at the time that she would turn out to be a special collared elk.

John and Pam, I'm convinced that we have a positive ID. Your collared elk is demonstrating a very normal migration pattern for a 14-year old cow in the Blackfoot-Clearwater herd. And, the information you've provided is the first data we've obtained on the whereabouts of its summer range.

So, I thank you for taking the trouble to notify us! Let me know if you see her nursing a calf.