Black Bears and Elk

DSCN08652As a Research Associate in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech I have had the opportunity to work with the Virginia Tech Black Bear Research Center (VTBBRC).  DSCN0867




It is a nice break from working with elk all the time.  There is some connection between bears and elk, though.  The American Black Bear (Ursus Americanus) is a normal predator of elk calves.  photofixed



Bears were especially problematic in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the early years of the Elk Restoration Project.


Helicopter1In the last two weeks I have helped Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) staff with a double count elk sightability study using a helicopter.  The study is conducted in the winter when elk are grouped together and forest canopy is open.  DSCN0856



VDGIF is conducting the study every three years beginning in 2011.  In the rugged mountains of southwest Virginia, helicopters are the best means of flying relatively low and slow over the terrain so animals can be spotted.  Survey blocks are flown in parallel transects with observation rates of each observer recorded to estimate elk density. helicopter2


It has been quite cold especially with the doors off so we can see.  We have seen elk, deer, wild turkeys, ducks, woodpeckers and great blue heron.  Thankfully, I haven’t gotten sick but I have been taking motion sickness pills.

GPS Error Estimation-5mBetween July 30th and August 16th, I deployed 5 GPS satellite collars programmed to take GPS fixes every 5 hours.  The collars where attached to strings between trees in forested areas or on fiberglass stakes in open areas.    The study area is the elk release site in the Virginia Elk Restoration Zone.  The purpose was to determine the fix rates and precision of the fixes for varying elevations, slopes, aspects, cover types, canopy closures, and distances from the ground.  I moved the collars to different locations every 4 to 5 days over the three week period.GPS Error Estimation-1m  M2E1L0-28R350B300

In this steep mountainous Appalachian terrain, we expect varying fix rates and precision estimates.  We expect lower fix rates and less precision at lower elevations in thick canopy cover and higher fix rates and more precision on high flat open areas.  However, the effects of aspect, canopy type, and distance from ground are unknown.

In general, the collars were not disturbed by humans or animals.  The one exception is when a yearly bull elk decided we wanted to investigate further.  He eventually pulled the collar and stake out of the ground.  Elk are vary curious animals and ofter mess with trail cameras.  GPS Error Estimation-6m

We conducted this small study to help determine the confidence we can place in our resource selection models which are based upon the GPS satellite collar data for the 26 collared elk in Virginia as well as GIS data.

Photos (except trail cam) courtesy of Allen Boynton.  Thanks Allen.



100_9659I went to Kentucky this week to field train with University of Kentucky PhD student John Hast.  John’s research focuses on bull elk population ecology, health (parasitological and disease aspects) and resource selection.  He is working under University of Kentucky Department of Forestry Professor, Dr. John Cox, in conjunction with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

100_9632John was a great help on chemical immobilization techniques and best practices.  We also discussed VHF and GPS collar field techniques as well as data analysis.  Thanks John!

The Commonwealth of Kentucky has over 10,000 free-ranging elk now.  From 1997 to 2002, Kentucky released 1,500 elk relocated from western states. 100_9677 100_9681The elk restoration zone consists of 16 counties, approximately 4 million acres, in eastern Kentucky.  The area contains numerous reclaimed surface coal mines interspersed with forest creating the right habitat combination for elk to thrive.

Best wishes to all,


elk calf in VirginiaElk calving season is underway in Virginia.  Two calves were born in the acclimation pens before the soft release into the wilds of Virginia.  Calves from elk released last year have also been spotted.

Calves are usually born in late May and into June.  Cows usually give birth to only one calf per year.  Newborns weigh about 35 pounds and can stand within minutes of birth.  Coyote in VirginiaHopefully we will have good calf recruitment this year.  It will probably be August before we get an accurate count of the newborn elk.

Coyotes, bobcats, and black bears may prey upon newborn elk calves in the eastern United States.  In the west, mountain lions and wolves also prey upon newborns.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries relocated 8 yearling bull elk and 2 mature cow elkDSCN0506 on May 23 from Kentucky to the acclimation pens in Vansant Virginia.  The elk will stay in the pens for 4-10 days to acclimate to the area before being released into the wild.  All of the elk have GPS collars for tracking the elk movement.  Dr. Vance will start analyzing the GPS collar data this summer to determine the effect of the 10 new elk on the current herd dynamics including dispersal.  He will also determine the telemetry collar accuracy to help with the habitat selection analysis.Elk Pens

Dr. James Vance, Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise is working with Dr. Marcella Kelly, Associate Professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech, Dr. David Jackowski, Research Associate in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech, and Allen Boynton, Terrestrial WildlifeElk 006 Biologist Manager at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries on the Elk Project. The team of researchers will be using the GPS collar tracking information from the elk to estimate home range size and utilization distributions to quantify space use patterns. Greographic information systems (GIS) data will also be incorporated to evaluate resource selection patterns of the newly reintroduced elk.

Leupold ImageAllen Boynton, VDGIF Terrestrial Wildlife Biologist Manager for Region 3 notes that, “The elk released in Buchanan County last May are doing well. All the elk that we have observed appear to be in very good condition. Preparations are underway in Kentucky to trap and quarantine elk. VDGIF plans to bring another small group of elk to Buchanan County this spring.”

Elk in Virginia

In May 2012, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) released 16 GPS satellite collared adult elk (C. c. nelsoni) on a reclaimed strip mine in Buchanan County, Virginia. Historically, the Eastern elk (C. e. canadensis) was found across the eastern United States, including Virginia. Sadly, the last native elk of Virginia was killed in 1855. Attempts to reintroduce elk in Virginia in the early 20th century “failed due to a lack of suitable habitat and knowledge of elk ecology”. By 1970 elk were once again gone from Virginia.

The recent reintroduction is due to increased interest in restoration of elk in Virginia since elk populations will provide ecological, social, and economic benefits to the Commonwealth. Bull Elk in VirginiaOver the next two years VDGIF plans to relocate an additional 59 elk to Buchanan County. Upon release, each adult elk will have a GPS satellite collar. “Specifically, with the GPS satellite collaring of elk, research on home ranges, movement patterns including dispersal, habitat selection (GIS), vital rates including mortality and fecundity, and nuisance and disease monitoring is achievable. This research is essential to protect DGIF’s investment in elk restoration.” VDGIF hopes to grow the population to 400 elk with sustained population control through selective hunting.