Wyoming Moose in Bighorn Mountains Subject of Study
POWELL, Wyo. (AP) — By air and on foot, scientists have now finished capturing and collaring 60 moose in the Bighorn Mountains with sophisticated transmitters for the range's first study of the storied species.
The culmination of the collaring effort by state biologists, researchers and game wardens is the first step in understanding the population, which was translocated to the Bighorns beginning in 1948. The study may also contain answers to other herds in the state, helping scientists understand why the species is struggling.
"In most of Wyoming, moose are in decline," said Leslie Schreiber, Greybull area wildlife biologist and the lead for the collaring project on the west side of the range.
Yet in the Bighorns, moose have never been studied, Schreiber said. Without research, very little is known about the numbers and health of the herd. And it's hard to protect what you don't know, Schreiber said.
Previous proposals to examine the herd lacked the funds for the expensive effort. But last year, more than $240,000 was made available for collars and resources for the first year of the study.
The Game and Fish department will fund the bulk of the costs, said Peter Dube, commissioner from Buffalo. They were also helped with donations from contributors Wyoming Governors Big Game License Coalition and the Sheridan County Sportsman's Association.
"There's so much we need to know. These (scientists) do an amazing job and it makes the commission's job easier when our folks have more tools in their tool kit," Dube told the Powell Tribune .
The collaring team consists of biologists and game wardens from Game and Fish and researchers from the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at the University of Wyoming, who are working in collaboration with the department to interpret data collected from the study. The team worked both from the air and on the ground, said Dan Thiele, Game and Fish wildlife management coordinator in Sheridan.
About half of the moose — all cows — were netted from helicopters in inaccessible areas. The other half was pursued on foot by teams armed with tranquilizers. The collaring effort began in March 2017, continued in February and then finished this month. The last of the 60 collars available for the study were installed in a final push last week.
Capturing the cows from the air is efficient, Thiele said. But ground efforts more resemble an actual hunt, where anything can happen.
The team caught up to a cow near the Porcupine Creek Ranger Station; it was feeding with two calves in a field near a stand of pines. Habitat access technician Eric Shorma quickly moved into position and darted the cow in the hindquarters.
The team worked fast. After the cow is down, the team races in to support the moose. They have to keep the animal upright to keep it from choking. They also have to make sure the moose doesn't overheat, so the operations can only be done in early morning and late evening hours.
The workers draw blood, pull hair, take a fecal sample and check for parasites — especially ticks.
As soon as tests were complete and the collar secured, the cow was given another shot to reverse the effects of the dart. The team combed the cow for injuries while she began to regain her strength. They then moved to a safe distance to wait for her to get up. She was munching on bushes before standing.
Most of the team moved on to look for another cow, but Schreiber stayed behind to make sure the calves were reunited with their mother.
A short time later, the calves tentatively appeared from the woods and, after a little nuzzling, they all began to feed again. A car full of passing tourists stopped when they saw the trio. A little girl in the back seat, barely tall enough to see out the window, said, "Look — she's wearing a necklace."
For the next three years, the cows will be observed and data about their health, birth rates and movements will be collected to help scientists estimate the population, understand the carrying capacity of the ecosystem and the health of the herd and habitat. The data will not only help with the Bighorn herd, but will assist research being done by other study teams, Dube said.
"A lot of these projects have other studies piggybacking on their work. You capture a specimen and you get hair, blood and information from a variety of tests. Sometimes others are studying the animals and they just need some blood (or other data). Capturing that one animal can lead to a variety of different studies," Dube said.
Studies of other Wyoming herds have been going for decades, said Schreiber. It's too early to know the exact benefits of the Bighorn study, but after three years, a timer in the collars will expire, releasing the device and falling to the ground. Using GPS transmissions, the collars will be collected, refurbished and used in other studies.
"The advances in the science of these collars are amazing," Dube said. "They've contributed a lot to our knowledge of many different species in the state. It's very, very important work."