More than 170 elk formerly residing in the Weiser Cove area have been relocated to Hells Canyon, some 65 air miles from their former home. In total, more than 230 animals have been removed from the area where depredation problems had reached critical levels and elk tolerance by local landowners had reached its limit.
The trapping/relocation effort was initiated after other, more traditional methods designed to significantly reduce the elk population in Weiser Cove failed. "We've tried depredation hunts, issued kill permits, used traditional hazing techniques, even instituted a five-month hunting season," Fish and Game wildlife manager Jon Rachael said. "As in the past, this year's harvest was inadequate; we still had 400 to 450 elk in the area."
With the conventional toolbox empty, it was time to try something a bit out of the ordinary. "Herding animals with a helicopter to a drive trap can be an effective method for relocating elk, but it is a technique not without risk, both to the animals and the people involved," Fish and Game conservation educator Evin Oneale explained. "We knew going into this effort that we were probably going to lose some animals in the process." Rachael concurred. "Any time you handle wild animals, some mortality is expected," he said. "It's an unavoidable factor in the process."
Thirty-three elk were relocated during the first day of trapping on Saturday January 27. "The contracted helicopter herded a group of about 50 elk to the trap site," Oneale said. "Just before entering the trap, more than a dozen animals broke from the group, wheeled and escaped." Those animals remaining in the trap settled down quickly. "Two bulls were in the trapped group," Oneale noted. "We darted both immediately to minimize the risk of them injuring other elk or our personnel." The elk were then systematically loaded into a waiting cattle truck. One calf suffered a broken leg during the trapping operation and was put down. "The calf was field dressed and then donated to a needy family," Oneale said. The largest of the two bulls was released at the trap site. "Not surprisingly, he showed no interest in being loaded in a cattle truck," Oneale said.
The following Tuesday, more than 140 elk were relocated to the Hells Canyon area. An additional 55 animals died at the trap site, mostly victims of trampling by other elk. "As the elk were being herded, they remained in one large group and simply overwhelmed the trap site," Oneale said. Efforts to close the trap gates before all the elk had entered failed. "Elk in the back of the herd kept slamming against and forcing the gates open in an effort to stay with the animals in front of them," Oneale noted. With the gates still open, around 70 elk escaped immediately. The remainder rushed to the back of the main trap and into the secondary corral. "Once confined, the elk simply panicked," Rachael said. "As the herd surged back and forth in the trap, some animals stumbled, went down and were trampled." Within four minutes after the elk first entered the trap, nearly 50 were dead, some with broken necks from striking the sides of the trap, the remainder from being trampled by other elk. "Most of the dead animals were calves and yearlings which stands to reason given their smaller body size," Oneale noted. "A few cows were also killed in the panic along with one spike bull."
Many of the dead elk were salvaged. "Several processors are taking care of the carcasses which will be distributed to needy families through local charitable organizations," Oneale said.
With the goal of moving at least 100 elk exceeded, trapping operations have been suspended. "We were able to relocate 175 elk from the Cove area to Hells Canyon," Fish and Game regional supervisor Don Wright said. "All told, more than 230 elk were removed from the area and we're optimistic that future elk depredation problems in Weiser Cove will be significantly reduced as a result of this effort."