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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow ELK CALF STUDY TO GO ON


By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

A Northeast Oregon effort to find out why so many elk calves die before their first birthday will continue, in spite of a federal magistrate's ruling banning the killing of cougars.

The study, begun last year by researchers at the Pacific Northwest Research Station in La Grande, is examining several factors that could cause the calves to die young. Among the suspected killers are the big cats.

If calves' deaths were caused by cougars, researchers had planned to kill the suspected predators, but a group of environmentalists sued to stop the practice. Recently, U.S. Magistrate Dennis Hubel ruled in Portland that biologists could not kill any cats until the effects of any action had been analyzed in a full environmental impact statement.

Bruce Johnson, a researcher with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the scientists will continue to collect data until the spring of 2004. Cows, calves and cougars in two units on the border of Wallowa and Union counties have been radio-collared for the study, which includes 40 elk cows and calves. Seventeen cougars were collared.

"We're going to capture those cows later this month, look at their nutrition level, their lactation," Johnson said. "This is not a cougar study, it's an elk calf study. There's a strong nutritional component, also."

The scientists are studying elk habitat, as well as weather and other environmental conditions, he said.

When they examine the cows, biologists will be able to determine if the cows are still nursing calves. The calves' collars contain mortality sensors.

"If the calf is dead, we try to determine a visual sign, if it died from natural causes or if it was killed by accident, or a predator," he said.

At the time research began, Johnson said that in recent years yearling calves have been surviving at a rate as low as 10 per 100 cows, compared to a historic rate of about 50 or 60 calves per 100 cows.

Research at that time was indicating that the animals could suffer poor nutrition caused by a high elk population density, drought and increased urbanization, as well as fall victim to predators, especially cougars.

"We can continue doing all the work we had scheduled to the point where we would (kill cougars) — if we reached that point — we'd have to stop at that point," Johnson said. "The data is needed to prepare the EIS (environmental impact statement.)"

When the study began, ODFW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife prepared an environmental assessment, indicating no environmental impact would be caused by the research. The federal judge disagreed.

"It's a lengthy process," Johnson said about preparing an environmental impact


At the same time an Oregon judge was ruling against killing cougars that kill elk calves, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Arizona that the U.S. Forest Service can kill predators that kill livestock grazing in the wilderness area of the Coronado National Forest in Southern Arizona.

The Arizona Daily Star reported that the Forest Guardians, an environmental group that brought the action, plans to appeal the ruling.

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