A lack of information about the elk on Etolin Island sparked a collaborative study between the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) last year. With the use of tracking collars, the study attempts to collect more data on the non-native species, such as population numbers, their habitat and their effect on the environment and other animals.
Last week, ADFG Aerial Wildlife Biologist Richard Lowell came to Wrangell to discuss the elk study as part of the Chautauqua lecture series at the Nolan Center.
Since last year when the study was approved by the USFS, Lowell said six elk have been collared on South Etolin Island, near Wrangell, and he hopes to place an additional six collars on elk this year.
Those collars will stay on the elk for two years, before automatically falling off the animal.
In 1987, Elk were first transplanted on Etolin Island, which is within Unit 3 of the Tongass National Forest and encompasses Wrangell and Petersburg. That same year, ADFG installed radio collars on 28 of those elk, and within roughly a year and a half, 66 percent of those elk died.
Lowell said, however, the population rebounded to about 200 elk by 1996. The first elk-hunting season was authorized the following year, he said.
Hunting was the primary reason the state decided to transplant the elk into the area. Lowell’s presentation attracted approximately 25 people to the Nolan Center last week. Elks are obviously of interest to people, especially those that live close to the herds, Lowell said. And, for the most part, hunting continues to be the main reason people are drawn to these animals, he said.
“I think the bigger part of interest in elk is driven by having the opportunity to hunt them here in Southeast Alaska,” Lowell said.
However, while the animals create recreation opportunities for both residents and tourists, the ADFG is charged with managing the herds. And, part of that management is ensuring the elk don’t have significant negative impacts to the native deer herds, Lowell said, which is also important to hunters.
Currently, Lowell said he does not have any serious concern the elk are posing a risk to the deer in the short term. However, there is still much the ADFG don’t know about the elk on Etolin Island, and the elk study aims to answer the agency’s questions.
Lowell estimates there are about 144 elk on Etolin Island and about 35 on neighboring Zarembo Island. Getting an exact population count will be “extremely difficult” because of the dense forest they live in, Lowell said. However, the elk study will hopefully give the ADFG a better understanding of the elk population, he said, as well as population trends, the elk herd’s sex and age composition and survival rates of the animals. The study also aims to determine the elk’s ecological impacts.
Also because of thick wilderness on South Etolin Island, where the majority of the elk in the area are believed to reside, it has been extremely difficult to locate the elk and the ADFG decided the use of a helicopter was needed to track and then collar the animals.
Along with the ADFG, the USFS had reservations about the decision to bring a non-native species into the forest in the late 80s, said Wrangell USFS District Manager Bob Dalrymple. Those same concerns are relevant today, he said, as both agencies know little about the elk.
“It’s questionable whether putting the species — an exotic species — into a new environment is a good thing,” said Dalrymple.
That information gap is what led Dalrymple to sign off on the ADFG elk study last summer. The study requires the use of helicopters in the wilderness to locate and then collar the elk.
That’s where the USFS comes in, Dalrymple said, because motorized use is prohibited in the wilderness unless for “exceptional reasons.” Dalrymple found the study posed no significant effect on the environment and the use of helicopters was necessary in order for the ADFG to collar the elk and begin collecting information that could be beneficial to both the state and federal agency.
“In all reality, the only way to get that information is to use helicopters,” he said. “It’s almost impossible otherwise.”
This hasn’t been the first attempt by ADFG to use helicopters over Etolin Island to collar elk. Several years ago, the agency proposed a similar study on the elk using helicopters to locate the animals and then place tracking collars on them.
The latest proposal from the ADFG differs because this time, the study also focuses on the elks’ habitat and its effects on the environment, instead of focusing solely on hunting management, Dalrymple said.
The current study has expanded since that previous proposal from the ADFG, he said.
“It is part of a bigger study in that once we know where the animals are, and how many there are and start tracking them, then we can go back in those areas and use that information to do more detailed studies on the habitat and the effects,” Dalrymple said.