By pure coincidence, two separate research projects to capture and fit cow elk with GPS collars in North Dakota and northwest Minnesota are scheduled to begin this week.
Manitoba is involved with both efforts because the province shares elk herds with each state.
The Minnesota study has been in the works since funding became available in June, but Bill Jensen, big game biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, said the timing of the two studies wasn’t a coordinated effort.
“I started contacting Manitoba late last summer, and during the conversation, (they asked) if this was part of the Minnesota study,” Jensen said. “It’s just coincidental, but I think there’s potential to coordinate with Minnesota on this, too.
“This is a real basic nuts-and-bolts project,” he said. “We just really don’t have that much information on (elk), and this way, we hope to at least answer some of the initial questions.”
About the studies
In Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources has contracted with a helicopter crew to capture 20 cow elk and fit them with GPS collars at two sites in Kittson County and a third site near Grygla, Minn.
The capture and collaring effort is scheduled to begin Monday, and if all goes according to plan, DNR officials say, the helicopter crew will finish its work by Wednesday. Typically, the crew can “work up” an elk in 15 or 20 minutes, and the animal is then released where it was captured.
According to DNR estimates, Minnesota has about 130 elk between the three herds near Grygla and Lancaster, Minn., and the Caribou-Vita herd that ranges between Caribou Township in northeast Kittson County and the Vita, Man., area in southeast Manitoba.
“This research project is the first of its kind in Minnesota,” Gino D’Angelo, deer project leader with the DNR in Madelia, Minn., said in a statement. “We know very little about elk in Minnesota. Our goal is to improve understanding of the species and ultimately develop management programs that benefit elk and their habitat, while also minimizing conflicts with landowners.”
The GPS collars will collect elk locations every four to six hours, the DNR says, and every hour during key times such as calving season. The data then will be uploaded to satellites, and researchers will receive daily email messages with elk locations.
In North Dakota, the Game and Fish Department has contracted with a different helicopter crew to catch and collar 15 cow elk, five each in the Turtle Mountains and Pembina Hills and five on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in southwest North Dakota. As in Minnesota, the collars will transmit data to satellites.
Manitoba is cooperating with both studies because the elk herd in the Turtle Mountain ranges between North Dakota and Manitoba, and the province and Minnesota share management of the Caribou-Vita herd, a population of elk also known as the “international herd.”
Ken Rebizant, big game manager for Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship in Winnipeg, said the North Dakota capture crew will be able to enter Manitoba if they have trouble collaring five elk on the U.S. side of the Turtle Mountains.
“We’re also going to have some boots on the ground helping out as needed,” Rebizant said. “(Manitoba) is not putting on any additional collars, but we’re helping them out as best we can. Both agencies are very interested in the data that’s going to be collected from these collared animals — how long they stay in North Dakota, how long they stay in Manitoba and how frequently they cross the border.”
It’s just a guess, but Rebizant said the Turtle Mountain herd likely numbers somewhere between 250 and 300 elk.
“We’re not sure what proportion of that herd goes between Manitoba and North Dakota,” he said. “Hopefully, this study will give us a little bit more information.”
Rebizant said the province does plan to collar eight to 10 cow elk from the Caribou-Vita herd in the next couple of weeks on the Manitoba side of the border.
The research projects target cow elk because the necks of bulls swell during the rut.
Rebizant said Manitoba also will use a helicopter crew to catch the elk, and the collars the province uses will record location data of the collared elk a couple of times a day.
He said the Caribou-Vita elk herd has an estimated population of about 100 between the animals in Minnesota and Manitoba.
Filling a void
The GPS data will fill an information void that’s existed since elk first started showing up in the Caribou-Vita area in the 1970s, Rebizant said. The elk may have moved east from the Spruce Woods Provincial Park area southwest of Winnipeg and followed the Pembina River Valley east to the Vita area in southeast Manitoba, Rebizant said.
There’s also speculation some of the elk in the international herd migrated from the Grygla area in Minnesota.
Or, Rebizant said, it could have been a combination of both.
“The Vita herd is more of a new thing, and both ourselves and Minnesota staff are trying to figure out what the origin of that herd is,” Rebizant said. “Both sides are pretty excited about this (study), that’s for sure. It’s something we’ve been talking about for a number of years, and now it’s finally happening, so it’s going to be neat to learn how much time the animals spend on the Manitoba side vs. the U.S. side and back and forth.
“Also, it’s a great opportunity for us neighboring agencies to meet on a more regular basis.”
The North Dakota study — also set to begin Monday — is being conducted in partnership with UND, which is providing a graduate student, Jacqueline Amor, to monitor the elk and their whereabouts. Jay Boulanger, UND assistant professor of Wildlife Ecology and Human Dimensions, is faculty lead and principal investigator for the study.
Boulanger said the researchers aim to learn more about not only the population of the three elk herds in the North Dakota study, but the demographic composition, the size of the area they use, the habitat they prefer and the biological and social carrying capacities of the three elk herds.
Amor, a geography teaching assistant with a background in Geographic Information System, or GIS, technology, won’t be on the ground looking at habitat, Boulanger said, but she will monitor the GPS transmissions and accompany pilots to survey the elk by fixed-wing aircraft once or twice a month during the winter.
The collars also will emit a VHF radio signal to speed the process of locating elk from the air, Boulanger said.
The Minnesota study is being conducted by researchers from the DNR and Minnesota State University-Mankato and will run through June 2018. Alicia Freeman, a graduate student at MSU-Mankato, will be monitoring the collared elk for the study.
The northwest Minnesota project is expected to cost about $270,000. Most of the costs are funded by a $200,000 grant from the Legislative Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources, with additional funding from the DNR and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The project also includes a related human dimensions survey of about 1,200 landowners in elk range to learn more about their attitudes and perceptions of the animals.
In North Dakota, Jensen of the Game and Fish Department said the study will cost about $80,000, of which some $50,000 will be spent on collars and capture. Because of UND’s involvement, Jensen said the Game and Fish Department will pay only about 10 percent of the project’s cost. Traditionally, he said, Game and Fish projects are 75 percent federally funded and 25 percent state-funded.
Boulanger said grant money he received from the National Science Foundation also is available to help offset the project’s cost.
Because of its tribal and international components, the North Dakota study has a lot of “moving parts,” Jensen said, which required consultation and cooperation among numerous agencies on both sides of the border.
“I’ve been really pleased with the response from the public and the cooperation we’ve gotten from the different entities–both Manitoba, Standing Rock and everyone in between,” Jensen said.
Combined with the studies in Minnesota and Manitoba, Boulanger said researchers will glean substantial information about the region’s elk herd in the next couple of years.
Pure coincidence, perhaps, but timely just the same.
“It’s a really neat opportunity,” Boulanger said. “There’s always strength in numbers, so we expect to get a really good picture regionally of what’s happening with elk in this part of the country.”