Capturing Calves

It's spring time! For us Montanans, it means a respite from the winter months, pleasantly warm days enticing us to play outside, and brilliant greening and flowering of vegetation that helps fill the soul after the excitement of snow and white wears off. It's a rejuvenating season for most. But for our Rocky Mountain elk, the spring season ushers in more than just a feel-good time. Over the past few weeks, pregnant female elk (cows) have been separating themselves from the herd, seeking secretive spots to give birth to the next generation. This could be in dense vegetation with no visibility such as that provided by willows in riparian corridors, in the new regrowth and difficult to traverse deadfall of previously burned areas, or anywhere that will conceal a newborn calf that struggles to stand or walk in its first day of life. The newborn calf, about the same weight of a mid-sized dog, needs a couple of days to gain strength and learn how to walk. After these episodes of standing, walking, and nursing, the calf must lie quiet and motionless to avoid predators, including but not limited to bears, coyotes, foxes, mountain lions, and wolves.

If I don't move and don't make a sound, you can't find me!!

Calf survival plays an important role in future population growth or decline. And that's exactly why researchers from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and Montana State University have been leading a calf-capture operation each spring. Without capturing, radio-tagging, and monitoring calves (they'll be monitored for the next year or more of life), it is next to impossible for biologists to understand calf survival and what factors might be causing mortalities. Furthermore, it enhances our understanding of how the entire population operates, as well as how changes in predator management impact elk.

The ear tag is part of a small VHF transmitter (hidden on the other side of the ear) so researchers can continue monitoring the calf as it gets older.

Scanning for suspicious cows and hidden calves. Photo credit: Teagan Hayes.

It's an ungulate sting operation of sorts. Scan for "suspicious" lone cows. Sneak into the area. Grid-search the area until you find the calf and pounce on it before it attempts to get away. If you're lucky, it's a day-old calf and an easy snatch. If you're not lucky, it's 5 days old with legs like a gazelle and leaves you empty handed. It doesn't take many days for them to gain strength and be able to outmaneuver and leave a human in the dust. Calf 1, researcher 0. Can you imagine having a baby, and five days later its faster than Usain Bolt?? Respect.

Even with that speed, they do have a rough go in the first few weeks of life "for the night is dark and full of terrors." While many predators know its calving time, not all mortalities are due to predators. Some just don't make it. Bad weather, poor condition, disease, and other environmental factors can come into play. Mortality can be as high as 30% during this time. And thanks to research such as this, we can gain a more informed grasp on calf survival that can help us make better management decisions for elk and predators.

40 pounder. Here with MPG Ranch biologist and former Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks biologist, Craig Jourdonnais.

Hobbles on the legs prevent escape as well as injury, and the blindfold helps to keep the calf at ease.

Much thanks to the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and Montana State University crew for providing the opportunity to be a part of this!