Two resident herds of rogue elk causing severe crop and fence damage in the Weiser Cove area east of Weiser may soon find themselves in a new setting. Fish and Game is gearing up to trap and relocate the elk beginning January 19.
The decision to move the elk was not made lightly. "We know that some folks will be unhappy with this decision," Fish and Game regional supervisor Don Wright noted. "And we fully realize the logistical difficulties involved with this type of operation. Still, we feel it is the best thing for the area and for the elk."
Given the prospect of relocating them, the two herds are sizeable. "There are 130 to 150 elk in the first group and 200 to 250 in the second," Fish and Game wildlife manager Jon Rachael said. "We're focusing Saturday's efforts on the smaller, more accessible group." In the days that follow, the larger elk herd will be the focal point of trapping efforts.
Elk residing in the Cove area are a fairly recent phenomenon. "When they first took up residence a few years ago, both herds were quite small and the source of few problems," Fish and Game landowner/sportsman relations coordinator John Nagel said. "They were at best a novelty and at worst an annoyance that was overlooked by area landowners."
Since then, both herds have grown and that growth has compounded damage problems. "We [Fish and Game] have attempted to reduce the herd using all the conventional tools at our disposal," Nagel said. Those conventional tools have included a five-month elk season, depredation hunts, kill permits and continual hazing. Despite these efforts, herd growth has not slowed and damage complaints and damage claims have soared. Fish and Game is now paying thousands of dollars annually for elk-caused crop damage with no end in sight. "We're out of conventional options," Wright said.
Sanctuary areas are one major factor that has crippled the effectiveness of hunting seasons. "The elk quickly identified large tracts of private land in the Cove area where elk are welcome but hunters are not," Nagel said. "They spend their daylight hours on these lands, then move out - under cover of darkness - to raid adjacent alfalfa, wheat and sugar beet fields, returning prior to sunrise to avoid hunters."
The trapping/relocation effort is not a simple logistical operation. "We're in the process of setting up the trap on private property right now," Rachael said. "We're also contracting for a helicopter and rounding up other equipment and enough personnel to ensure that the operation goes as smoothly and efficiently as possible."
A drive trap will be used to capture and hold the elk for loading and transport. When viewed from the air, the drive trap resembles a large "V," the two wings of the V each extending for several hundred yards. "Just setting it up is a difficult process," Rachael commented. At the bottom of the V, several round corrals are being assembled to hold the captured elk. A helicopter will be used to haze the animals into the V and toward the corrals. "We'll have folks stationed at the end of each wing," Rachael explained. "As soon as the helicopter drives the elk past these positions, the personnel hiding there will fan out across the top of the V to discourage the elk from turning back." The corrals are constructed in such a way as to resemble an escape route for the elk. "Hopefully, they will continue into the corrals and be trapped before they realize what has happened," Rachael said.
All told, the corrals can hold an estimated 50 elk at one time. "We'll use the helicopter to cut out fewer than 50 animals and haze those animals into the trap," Rachael explained. "With some luck, we'll be able to repeat this process until most of the elk are captured." Blood samples will be taken from a portion of the captured animals, then the entire group will be loaded and trucked to relocation sites in northern and north-central Idaho. "We want that kind of distance to ensure that these elk never return to the Weiser Cove area," Rachael said.