TOP PHOTO: An elk is being lowered from this helicopter to the field at Hatfied Knob. (PHOTOS COURTESY OF MATTHEW CAMERON-TWRA)

By Charlotte Underwood

DUFF, TN (WLAF) – If you’ve heard helicopters in the Hatfield Knob and Chestnut Ridge areas of Campbell County this month, it was the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) doing “helicopter elk captures” as part of its efforts to monitor and understand more about how the elk population is developing. This is the second time the agency has done this kind of project in Campbell County.

The video is courtesy of Bill Stanley, CORA Board Chair (Campbell Outdoor Recreation Association).

The agency’s new Elk Program Coordinator Garrett Clevinger headed up the project that took place over two days on February 6th and 7th.  Clevinger started as TWRA’s new elk coordinator a couple of months ago in December. The recent project in Campbell County is his first project since he started the position. Clevinger completed his PhD in the fall of 2022 and worked as TWRA’s Deer Program Coordinator prior to taking over as the elk coordinator.

This elk is being examined by the elk team on the bed of this trailer before it’s driven away.

As elk program coordinator, Clevinger oversees the elk management progress in Tennessee, focusing in the five-county area where the species has been reintroduced including Campbell, Anderson, Claiborne, Scott and Morgan counties. The elk restoration zone encompasses 670,000 acres in these five counties.

The first shipment of elk was introduced in the state in December of 2000, according to Clevinger, who said the agency had done multiple releases between 2000 and 2008.

“All of our elk that have been released have come from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada,” Clevinger said. Another group of elk was moved to Tennessee from the Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes area, but those elk originated in Canada as well.

Over the past decade, the TWRA has been doing a “mark re-sight survey” and the agency estimates that Tennessee has a population of 400 to 450 elk.

During the two-day project in Campbell County, the agency was doing helicopter captures trying to target pregnant cows to put tracking collars on them and to “implant them with a small transmitter that when they give birth, they will expel it and it will send a signal to the collar that the calf has been born.”

This will help TWRA elk specialists have a better understanding of “how much young are being recruited into the population.”

Elk will calve in late May and early June.

“Then we can go and hopefully capture the calves to put a tracking collar on them to track them over their lifetime to see what their survival is like, to see what predators they have. That way we can see how many are making it into the population by the time the breeding season comes around in September,” Clevinger said.

During the two-day project, a total of 19 elk cows was captured, with “most of them being pregnant.”

The helicopter capture crew TWRA partnered with on the project was a team based out of South Africa that specializes in capturing large animals. According to Clevinger, typically these teams operate in the western states where it is “more open” making helicopter captures more common. It has just been in the past ten years that they’ve realized they can also do these helicopter captures in some of these open areas in our mountains here in the southeast.

“We’re still new to the process, and we’re learning as we go,” Clevinger said. The process is an intricate one and is “pretty expensive” to do.

“It takes a lot of people to do it safely and efficiently,” Clevinger said.

Currently there is not re-occurring funding in place to do projects like this, but Clevinger said the agency would like to do more of them in the future.

To capture the elk, the helicopter flies over top of them and someone hangs off the helicopter with a net gun. That person will shoot the net gun on to the elk, who then gets tangled in it. Two “muggers” then jump out of the low hovering helicopter and put “hobbles on the elk to restrain it so they don’t hurt themselves.” The elk is then put into a sack and a cable is lowered from the helicopter that then hooks up to the elk and lifts it, flying it over to be dropped off on the back of a trailer where the elk is then surrounded by a team of experts.

“We anesthetize them using capture drugs which sedates them while we take biological samples and health indicators,” Clevinger said.

Once the calves are born in late May and early June and Clevinger and other elk specialists go to the calving sight to put collars on them, they will learn much from just seeing where the cows chose to give birth.

“We hope to be able to look at habitat preferences by being able to figure out where the cows are choosing to give birth. It is important and will tell us what type of vegetation structure they are choosing for protection from predators and will also tell us the nutrition of the area. We will do a lot of habitat analysis with this project,” Clevinger said.

All this information helps the TWRA’s Elk program grow.

“This gives us a good idea to see how the population is going.

The TWRA also has some upcoming habitat projects underway as well. The agency works a lot with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation on getting grants, with a lot of them aimed at habitat work.

“We’re always doing habitat projects. Some of our upcoming projects will include creating some wildlife openings, which are field areas that the elk favor in spring and summer. We want to provide good, quality habitat for our elk,” Clevinger said. (WLAF NEWS PUBLISHED – 02/19/2024-6AM)

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