Brian Dick, area manager with the U.S. Forest Service, checks over a cow elk as it moves through a state-of-the-art wildlife handling facility at the Starkey Project site. In a matter of minutes, the elk will go through a series of health checks, often getting ear tags and radio collars for ongoing research. Several hundred animals are handled at this site each winter. (JIM WARD photo)
Things are always buzzing up at the Starkey Project — a 40-square-mile wildlife research facility about 22 miles west of La Grande. In the spring, summer and fall, researchers fan out each morning to one of several ongoing and new projects throughout the study area. But, in winter, things really heat up.
In late fall, elk in the fenced, but huge study area (hunters have actually got lost in there), are lured into smaller enclosures baited with alfalfa. Gradually they’re moved into the winter quarters where they will be fed for the next several months. Once a sizable bunch is gathered up, researchers prepare for their annual round-up. ATVs are fired up, gates are plowed free and other important equipment is pre-tested.
Then, like a well-oiled machine, everyone gets in position for the arrival of the elk. The animals are moved from the larger feeding quarters though a series of gates into a state-of-the-art system of squeeze chutes, weigh scales and examination stalls. In a matter of a few minutes, an animal gets weighed, receives an ear tag and maybe a radio collar if needed.
As the creature moves through the system, its teeth might be checked for age, its antlers may be sawed off for safety and blood samples are taken. A quick go over with an ultra-sound machine checks the depth of its body fat to determine body condition and maybe pregnancy.
Almost before the elk can figure out what’s going on, the work is done and it’s headed back out to the feeding area.
Brian Dick, area manager, is rightfully proud of his team’s work and the facility they have to work with. “In the 25 years we’ve been doing this work we’ve ran our elk through this system over 15,000 times” he says. Elk are wild and get very stressed when handled — some even die. “In the last many years we’ve only had a 0.5 percent mortality rate, which is almost unheard of in the ranks of wildlife handling” he points out.
Indeed, it’s truly amazing just how fast and efficient several hundred elk can be processed and given a health check at the Starkey facility. I only wish things moved as fast and thorough at my doctor’s office.