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Slideshow | Elk traps, collarings mean wild encounters on Snoqualmie Ridge
The elk knows they are coming, and she plans to fight.
As four golf carts roll to a halt on the Snoqualmie Ridge TPC’s 12th fairway on this chilly December morning, she jumps in fright, churning the frozen ground to mud, steam rising from her flanks.
But the net of the trap, baited with apples the day before, holds. The Upper Snoqualmie Valley Elk Management Group will soon know a lot more about this animal.
Harold Erland, biologist and leader of this Elk Group expedition, calls a halt to the chatter and makes sure the scattered line of volunteers bunches up, trying not to spook the panicked elk.
Quietly, he gives the word to go. His volunteers stride fast across the fairway, each ready to play their parts in the job of strapping a radio collar onto a live, conscious wild animal.
Meet the team
Each volunteer had their own reasons for coming to this cold, windy hill in the pale morning.
Michael Havrda, a part-time Lowe’s employee from Kenmore, is working on his wildlife science degree at the University of Washington.
When he got the call at 6:30 a.m., “I threw clothes on and drove over here,” excited for a real-life experience collaring elk. “All right, let’s go!” he remembers thinking. “I didn’t want to be late.”
Mike Walter, a computer technician from North Bend, came to support his friend Erland’s study efforts—Erland’s early call set off a special, rollicking ring-tone on his cell phone. Ashley Skeen, a West Seattle resident and U.S. customs biologist, arrived to stoke the scientific passion she found during college.
Tom Kemp, a truck stop chaplain from North Bend, is an old hand at the job, as is Bob Folkman, a retired dentist from Issaquah with the outdoors in his blood.
“I’m an old farmer,” he said. “I grew up around animals.”
Folkman’s hands are stained yellow from the Vitamin B-12 syringe he carries. It will be his job to administer shots to the elk, lowering her stress level.
To Folkman, there’s something special about elk.
“Elk are fantastic animals—very smart,” he says. “They go to the store every day, just like us.”
To a band of 30 elk, that “store” is the green grass of the TPC Snoqualmie Ridge. With winter cold eliminating habitat elsewhere, a group of elk have found tender grass shoots on the fairways to be a taste treat. Curious elk also love to play with the flags.
“An elk will destroy a green in an evening,” Walter says.
Today’s project, putting on a VHF radio that will stay on this elk for the rest of the animal’s life, will help elk watchers and property owners understand the Ridge band’s movements.
“We don’t know where these elk go,” Walter says. “That’s why we’re here.”
The herd in the Valley numbers just over 400 animals. About 150 live on the east side, the rest in the west side of the Upper Valley. Elk watchers want to know what the elk’s habits are and where they are expanding.
This winter, elk will be trapped and collared at Meadowbrook Farm in the Valley’s center, and all around the area’s fringes. One elk is to be collared in the Highland Drive area north of Snoqualmie, three others in the area’s outer limits on behalf of the Washington Department of Transportation, in an effort to understand the interplay between elk, cars and people.
The Valley’s elk aren’t in stasis. Last year, a band of 20 left the Valley floor, ranged their way up past the TPC golf course and Lake Alice to take up residence near Fall City. They’ve been seen there in the last year, enjoying good habitat and security. No one bothers them but, perhaps, the occasional poacher, Erland said.
This latest collaring, begun at 8 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 8, is only one piece of a wider puzzle. Erland hopes to eventually have 50 animals collared in the Valley for a complete picture. Next spring, the group will conduct its annual survey, counting animals to recalculate the size of the herds.
Fast, thrilling work
Out on the golf course, time seems to slow down as the volunteers go to work, folding the frame of the trap so that the captured elk lies down.
At the animal’s head, Erland is all business, calling out instructions during tense moments collapsing the trap, when the panicked elk’s neck and leg are in wrong, tight places.
“Neck out, neck out!” he calls. “Is her nose in through there? Now, get on the blanket! Where’s our rider?”
Havrda, the University of Washington student, rushes forward, then climbs onto the elk’s back, rodeo style. He’s a human counterweight, convincing the elk that it’s not going anywhere. Havrda soothes the animal’s coarse hair.
“Easy girl, easy,” Havrda says. “She’s a little wild.”
Its head under a blanket, the elk is calmer, but still barks angrily at the unwelcome attention, as team members punch on a no. 38 ear tag, strap on the VHF collar and take samples.
“Yes, we hear you,” Erland said. “You’re a big, tough lady.”
Erland checks her teeth, then determines that she’s a healthy 3-year-old, 500-pound young female.
“She’s a big, heavy elk,” he says. “She’s no baby. That’s why we have as many people as we’ve got,” seven volunteers and three or four TPC crew members. A larger, older cow the team trapped the day before “would have lifted you right up,” Erland tells Havarda.
As volunteer Tom Kemp straps on the collar, Folkman administers shots and Skeen goes over the checklist and watches the clock. Walter checks the elk’s temperature, which rises under stress.
“As long as it’s not skyrocketing,” things are fine, he says. “If it gets up there,” around 105 degrees, “we’ll abandon everything and let her go.”
The team works fast. Six minutes in, all is finished.
“Have we got everything?” Erland calls.
Havarda climbs off, the trap is carefully righted, and the door is opened. The elk high-tails it out without a glance, down into a wooded draw.
Once no. 38 has gone, members track the fading beep of her collar on a handset. Within a minute, the elk is somewhere far down the Ridge’s slope.
“She’s way over the hill,” Erland says. “She’s gone.”
Someone decides she needs a name. After a momentary deliberation, one of the team picks “Danielle,” after his mechanic. The name sticks—it’s as good as any.
“There it is,” Erland said. “That’ll work.”
The morning’s collaring was an easy one, team members agree.
“Everyone did a good job,” Erland said.
For him, the capture adds one more spot of data to the Elk Management Group’s picture of the local herd.
More animals will be collared this winter in and around the community, probably with more traps and adrenaline-charged effort.
While trapping has its own dangers—elk can be injured when the trap is collapsed to pin the animal—this team has enough volunteers to ensure the elk’s safety.
While the group has sometimes used tranquilizer darts to knock out animals, they’ve shied away from the practice.
The chemical used in darting is lethal to humans if it gets on their skin. Also, animals who have been darted can travel into hard-to-reach areas, stumble or hurt themselves.
“When you dart an animal, there’s a chance it could go someplace,” Erland said. “We’re in a city, on a golf course, there are roads, rivers, steep slopes.” If the animal runs, “then you’ve lost the dart, and it’s out there, lethal. It’s not worth it.”
Kemp, who has volunteered for these collarings dozens of times, knows about the thrill that the job brings.
“The first half-a-dozen times that we did it, it would take us an hour for the adrenaline rush to wear off,” Kemp said.
“We’d sit around high-fiving for an hour,” he added. “Now it’s, ‘OK, we got the lawn mowed.”
The thrill is still new for Havrda. Driving his golf cart back across the course, he is excited.
“Experiences like this are something that veteran biologists don’t often get,” he said. “I’m thrilled I could do it.”