Mystery solved: Is that a BIGFOOT trap at Meadowbrook Farm?

[Article by contributing writer Melissa Grant, owner of Miss Lola’s Academy for Wayward Dogs]

Ha! Made you look.

Everyone enjoyed my Bigfoot article so much I thought I’d use that enjoyment to get our Upper Valley Snoqualmie Elk Management group some PR. I joined last March after writing about the group, going to their BBQ and auction. I had received an email about the trap, but it was clear from a posting on social media that other people in the area had no idea what it was for and were curious.

The email was from the group’s biologist and simply asked if members would like to be called when there was an elk in the trap. I honestly didn’t give it much thought and breezed right past it. However, seeing the post on Facebook about the trap I was curious now. Sharen Marsall, the chair for the Education and Outreach Committee, had replied on the thread and told the group they were actively trapping and collaring until April 15th and needed to get 15 elk by that time. She urged me to contact their Wildlife Biologist and get on the list to be called when one was in the trap. So, I did.

The last time I had contact with the group I had spoken to Scott Phelps, the group’s President, but this time I spoke with Harold (Butch) Erland their Wildlife Biologist and the group’s chair for their elk research and management committee. He got involved with the elk in February of 2008 when asked by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, because they were having problems with excessive property damage in the Snoqualmie Valley. After about a year he and Russell Link, who was the county biologist, talked about getting the community involved and ended it up a full-blown research project. He has been working on this for 10 full years (after retiring!) now. He was educated in Wildlife Biology at the University of Montana and ended up graduating from the Uiversity of Washington with a degree in Conservation and Wildlife Management.  Harold put me on the list to call when they trapped an elk but in the meantime, I sent over some questions about the process.

Their website does offer some basic information about why they trap-

“Most of the research is done through the trapping and GPS collaring of cow elk which helps determine migration patterns, home ranges, and habitat use of the herd and sub-herds. In addition to that, trapping also allows an up-close evaluation of the health and condition of multiple elk in the valley.

Annual surveys are done to document the population and composition of the local herd, as well as the annual calf recruitment numbers”

But I wanted to know more. Like why now and why by April 15th? Harold replied- “By April 15th is because we cannot trap after that as the elk are in their third trimester of pregnancy. We collect elk between July 15th and April 15th. In summer, temperature becomes a big factor as do bears raiding our traps.  In the winter we do not have to worry about bears. 15 will make a big dent in the number of collared elk that we have. We try to have 8 to 10 % of the elk collared at all times to maintain a valid sample size.  In the last 20 months, we have lost about 20 marked elk to cars and hunting and have only replaced 5.”

Did they collar both males and female? Harold said “Adult female elk only will get collars. Female Calf may get ear tags.I later learned that was because the males don’t live as long.

I knew about the one visible trap by Meadowbrook but were there others? “2 traps and they are visible now if you know where to look, we moved the one that was highly visible.  We like to have them away from the pubic but where, with binoculars, we can check them twice a day. And, they need to be where we can drive to them as they are heavy and we can get lights on them in the dark.”

I learned, too, that apples are what gets them into the trap and that they don’t get too upset until they get close right before they collar them. They blindfold the elk, but use no sedation. Like other animals, sedation can make the process longer and required observation for 30 to 45 minutes while the drug wears off. Also, we are too close to water and roads to have sedated elk walking around both before going to sleep and coming out off drugs. Putting them out completely is risky and takes too much time.

Biologists like the collaring process to be as quick as possible (to minimize the animals stress) and get a fecal sample, check the hooves for hoof rot, look at body and teeth condition and get a temperature. The animal is collared and given shots of vitamin E/Selenium and B complex vitamins to help her recover from the stress afterwards.

I asked about the process and learned that is done while they’re in the trap with a minimum of four people helping. Often times there are many onlookers, including children as Harold likes to give kids first hand looks at science to possibly peak their interest. I’ve heard residents in the past talk about the collars and muse that they looked uncomfortable so I asked if they were and how long they stay on? He said:

“It depends on the type of collar; many GPS collars are set for 1 or two years and they drop off. VHF collars stay on for as long as the elk is alive. Remember, an elk’s average age is only about 5 years old. The collars normally give off a signal for 5 to 7 years and some have still been working after 10 years. I expect that they may have an initial dislike for the collar but I have never seen one trying to get it off or looking like they are in distress because of it. If anything, the collars that we put on are a little bit looser than they could be.  In the winter when the elk have really thick coats of hair, some look like they are tight but they really are not.” (note: the collars they put on were the VHF collars)

So, armed with all this new information I now awaited the call. One Tuesday night it came. Harold told me they spotted an elk in one of the traps and would I like to meet them at 8:30 tonight? Well, heck yeah here was my chance!

I met about nine group members by the big rock on highway 202. After they all had been given their responsibilities and safety procedures (safety for the volunteers and the elk are of the utmost importance), we all piled in two trucks and set off across the field towards the tree line. It took a little looking, but we found the trap and an elk lounging inside. We had been warned to stay in the truck until Harold was ready to go and had determined it was in fact a female. On his go everyone piled out. I stayed back with another onlooker.

Approaching the trap in the glare of the headlights, the first thing done was tip the trap over to force the elk to lie down. She wasn’t too into it, but eventually went down. The men carefully go through a checklist of all their tasks and call out numbers to the designated note taker. This elk didn’t particularly enjoy the process and made quite a bit of noise (they say they usually aren’t that talkative) Who knew elk could make scary monster noises?! I guess she was pretty emaciated and maybe not feeling all that great. We got back in the truck and watched as the men righted the trap. Apparently usually they run right out but she seemed reluctant. Suddenly I heard Harold shout “GO!” and they all quickly headed for the trucks. Finally, she ran out and into the darkness. I found out later she had started chattering her teeth. A sure sign she’s mad and you should get out of her way. The whole process took twelve minutes. A long one, according to the men.

Alas I had a bad camera battery that night so I asked to be called again if they caught one in the daylight and sure enough Saturday morning Harold called again. We met everyone at a spot near the Mt. Si Golf Course and did the whole process again. This one was big and healthier but much less noisy. They had an easier time that time and got everything done in 6 minutes. She took off the instant they righted the trap without looking back. Apparently that night they got another in the same trap.

If you’re interested in seeing an elk collaring for yourself all you have to do is become a member of the Upper Snoqualmie Valley Elk Management Group. It’s just $10 a year and you can sign up on their website at www.snovalleyelk.org . It’s a really good cause and your contribution helps fund the collars and all the other good work they do for the elk in the Valley. Either way you can go to a meeting, which are open to the public almost every third Monday of each month, at the Forest Service conference building off of Thrasher at 6PM. Look for that information on their website as well. I highly recommend going to see the process yourself.

Here’s a few photos of the recent recent daytime collaring Melissa attended.

 

 

 

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