Study shows refuge elk are well fed, have high winter survival rate

(Jackson, Wyo.) - The National Elk Refuge equipped 30 cow elk with GPS collars earlier this month, part of an ongoing cooperative research project that evaluates habitat use and migration patterns. During this month’s collaring event, two staff from the USFWS Wildlife Health office joined one of the collaring teams to implement a body condition assessment technique using ultrasound equipment to measure rump fat on some of the elk. The team was able to complete assessments on nine cows. When the results of the assessments were analyzed, all nine elk in the sample group showed they had measurable rump fat. In comparison, a previous study of unfed winter elk near Yellowstone National Park showed 49 percent of the cows had no measurable rump fat when evaluated in mid- to late winter. Although the ultrasound technique used on the Refuge evaluated a small sample size, the results clearly indicated all the elk still carried measurable body fat. Wildlife veterinarian Jennifer Ballard, DVM, PhD, participated in the body condition assessment study and observed hundreds of elk during the two-day testing. “Based on the ultrasound results and my observations, I saw no evidence that elk were being starved on the National Elk Refuge,” Dr. Ballard summarized. Ballard’s comment was in response to accusations from a local organization that Refuge staff has been intentionally starving elk this winter. “This couldn’t be further from the truth,” Kallin added. “These tests and observations confirm this simply isn’t happening.” Both elk and bison have been managed consistently each year on the National Elk Refuge since the completion of the Bison and Elk Management Plan in 2007. Since then, the overall elk herd survival rate on the Refuge during Jackson Hole’s winter months has averaged 98.8 percent (excluding hunting). This season, total elk mortality to date is well below average at 0.8 percent. “That is a remarkable survival rate for a wild population when you consider mortality in domestic cattle feedlots can range from 1-5 percent,” Kallin said. *Feature Photo: Dr. Jennifer Ballard, DVM, PhD (right) and Lee Jones (left) from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wildlife Health office use a medical imaging technique in the field as part of a recent body condition assessment. h/t USFWS / Pitchengine Communities* #buckrail #news