From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 5, Number 45 - February 2, 2006
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

WG&F removes 42 elk

by Cat Urbigkit

Six members of the press received telephone calls Saturday morning, inviting us to witness the Muddy Creek elk feedground test-and-removal project. We were told to meet in Pinedale early the next morning.

It all began with a 6:30 a.m. press briefing Sunday at the Pinedale Volunteer Fire Department Fire Hall. Four media representatives attended to learn the plan for the day and the critical need to keep noise and movement to a minimum while the elk were being handled.

Wyoming State Veterinarian Dr. Dwayne Oldham, University of Wyoming College of Ag Dean Dr. Frank Galey and USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service public affairs specialist Teresa Howes attended the session, as did Wyoming Game and Fish Department brucellosis information specialist Chris Colligan (media handler one) and public information officer Eric Keszler (media handler two) and public information specialist Mark Gocke of Jackson (who might have been a handler, but he's more into doing great wildlife photography).

We were given packets of information about the program with great color maps and photos copied onto CDs.

The pilot project is a recommendation of Wyoming's Brucellosis Coordination Team and involves a limited test-and-slaughter program on elk at Muddy Creek in an attempt to reduce their brucellosis seroprevalence rate. Brucellosis is a bacterial-caused disease of the reproductive tract that is common in elk and bison in western Wyoming. Transmission from elk to cattle occurred in western Wyoming in 2003, leading to the state losing its coveted brucellosis-free status for its livestock herds.

We left the briefing at 8 a.m. in two vehicles and headed for Muddy Creek. As we pulled into the staging area two miles outside the feedground, it became apparent there were dozens of vehicles on site, with a Sublette County Sheriff's Office truck at the entrance monitoring all comers, and a federal U.S. Forest Service ranger towing snowmachines parked in the corner. Preparation for the operation involved being ready for protesters or anyone wanting to obstruct the test-and-slaughter operation, so the law enforcement presence was definitely felt. The Sublette County Road and Bridge Department had assisted as well, blading the road into the feedground so that the trucks and trailers could get in to get the work done.

Kesler had told us that the operation would begin before we arrived. Because of concerns for safety of the elk and people, we'd be kept out until the elk were safely in the trap and sorted into smaller groups. I counted nearly 70 people in the parking lot, waiting for the call allowing us to go in. That call never came Sunday.

Boulder rancher Frosty Hittle, the Muddy Creek elk feeder, had been feeding in the trap two weeks prior to the capture effort, with about 400 elk using the feedground this winter.

Colligan pointed out that this new trap was actually experimental. He told us that they'd trapped elk at the site two weeks prior. The first day of trapping was a bust, but the second day, 37 elk were trapped and bled. Unfortunately, they also had a trap mortality that day.

WG&F Assistant Wildlife Division Chief Scott Talbott said that to make the capture effort worthwhile, at least 100 adult cow elk needed to be secured inside the trap. As the morning progressed, elk would wander into the trap, but some would get spooked and leave again. At one point in the early afternoon, there were about 200 elk in the trap, but only about 70 of were adult cows, with the remainder being calves and spike bulls. Talbott knew that the elk needed to be captured in the morning to provide enough time for them to be processed in daylight and have the lab work on the blood finished before the next morning. A little after 1 p.m. the program was called off for the day, with plans to try again Monday morning. As we were preparing to leave, cattleman Doc Jensen and his son Jerry stopped by to see how things were going. Access to the feedground is through the Jensens' private property and it was the Jensens' cattle herd that had to be depopulated - sent to slaughter - because it had contracted brucellosis from the Muddy Creek elk.

After another early-morning meeting, crews arrived back at the staging area around 9 a.m. on Monday, prepared to wait once again. Deputies and the federal ranger were there waiting as well. As the elk were being baited into the trap and the crowd waited a few miles away, a fixed-wing airplane came through, flying low and slow along the foothills. It made the wildlife folks nervous and soon law enforcement authorities contacted the Ralph Wenz Field to request that word be relayed to the pilot that he should avoid the area. The plane didn't come back by, but about an hour later, a helicopter flew over, but at a higher altitude.

A gooseneck-trailer load of alfalfa had been hauled in overnight to bait the trap with tasty hay, in hopes of ensuring a better capture success. It worked, because word soon came that the trap had been triggered and the first crews were to move in.

The 235-foot-long portable trap is capable of handling 400-500 elk at one time, with a total of 10 squeeze chutes for processing elk. An Idaho firm designed the trap and the price of its construction materials rang in at $93,000.

The media was held back for more than an hour while the elk were worked into three separate groups and 14 big bulls were sedated and pulled from the trap before the other 220 head of elk could be worked through the chutes. Although there are "bull excluders" built into the design of the trap, some of the big bulls, knowing exactly where the tips of their antlers are, tilted their heads just right and got through anyway.

When clearance was given for the media to come in, there were three WG&F folks for the four of us. Two of the WG&F information specialists were given the assignment to take care of us and keep us from getting in the way or in trouble. As the work progressed, these representatives made sure that we could interview anyone we wanted to, as well as that we got all the photographs we needed. Although they were handlers, they accommodated us well. A deputy and the federal ranger moved in to the entrance of the trap site, leaving one deputy to keep watch at the staging area.

At first blush, it might have seemed like 70 people at Muddy Creek would have been overkill, but when it came to getting the work done, everyone had a well-defined role and there wasn't much standing around being done. The majority of the workers were WG&F personnel, from wardens to veterinarians and other animal professionals.

The elk were moved into alleyways and worked into sweep boxes in smaller groups, until they could be worked individually into squeeze chutes. While in the chutes, the cow elk were squeezed and blindfolded to keep them calm, blood samples were drawn from the jugular vein and numbered rubber sleeves were placed around their necks allowing for easy identification later. In addition, eartags were installed and fecal samples were taken for an academic study of lungworm and parasite loading in elk. All of the blood sample and eartag information, as well as age estimates, were recorded into hand-held computers.

Calves were eartagged and released out the back of the squeeze chutes, as were spikes.

The cow elk were moved into a round holding pen for the night while the lab work was completed on the blood samples. A portable lab was set up in the WG&F Pinedale regional office to process the samples, overseen by USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service epidemiologist Dr. Mark Stewart. With more than 40 years of involvement in brucellosis control in Wyoming, he's familiar to many Sublette County ranchers. APHIS veterinarian Dr. Owen Henderson of Daniel helped do the bleeding Monday also.

We watched the operation for a few hours. When we were satisfied we had our stories and photos, WG&F drove us out, thanking us for participating in the event. It made me smile to pass Doc Jensen headed in as we headed out.

A total of 116 female elk were bled, 42 of which tested positive for the disease. With one of the positives euthanized Tuesday morning as a casualty of the capture, the remaining 41 were loaded into three livestock trailers that were locked and sealed by law enforcement officers and driven to a USDA-inspected slaughter facility in Idaho Tuesday morning. When the animals arrive at the processing facility, a necropsy team from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department will take tissue samples and perform necropsies on each carcass. The meat from the animals will be packaged and brought back to Wyoming for free distribution.

Although the females that tested positive for brucellosis were sent to slaughter, the cow elk that tested free of brucellosis were released back onto the feedground. This is in sharp contrast to how brucellosis is treated when it's detected in cattle. In cattle, one positive brucellosis case means the entire herd must be sent to slaughter.

Editor's Note: To see photos related to this story, please turn to page 23.

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