Tour gives natural resource professionals look at the Starkey Projectís unique elk

By By Dick Mason The Observer June 29, 2012 03:10 pm

U.S. Forest Service Biologist Brian Dick did not need a bugle to call in a dozen cow elk a week ago at the Starkey Project .

All Dick needed to do was issue a lighthearted command — “Come here, gals!’’

The words created a sight almost fit for the Animal Planet channel or “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.’’ 

However, the scene may be impossible to witness a decade from now at the Starkey Project.  

The elk trotted over to a fence about 25 adult visitors were standing behind. The visitors excitedly put their hands through the fence, patting the heads of the elk, which nudged up against them. It was hard to tell who enjoyed greeting the other the most — the elk or the people. 

Few other places in the world offer such scenes, for elk are shy around people. The elk who greeted the visitors at Starkey, however, are the exception to this rule of nature. They are not genetic anomalies  but were tamed about two decades ago as calves so they could be easily handled by people conducting research. The elk were all captured within 48 hours of being born and then bottle fed by people regularly as part of an intense process designed to make them comfortable around people.

Today 37 of these elk, all cows and either 19 or 21 years old, are still alive at the Starkey Project. No bulls are in the mix because many have sour dispositions. 

“They get too aggressive as they get older,’’ said Dick, the area manager for the Starkey Project.

No other elk have been hand-raised at the Starkey Project since the early 1990s, which means once these cows, which have already lived far longer than they would in the wild, have died, no other tame elk likely will be available.

“Ten years from now none of these elk will be alive,’’ said Dick. He was among the many people who gave presentations about work at the Starkey Project to about 150 natural resource professionals on a tour sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The Starkey Project’s tame elk look alike to the untrained eye. However, their personalities are anything but alike. Some are almost as comfortable around people as social butterflies. Others are distant. The ones that greeted visitors at the fence might be Welcome Wagon hosts if they were humans. 

“They just want to know who the new people are,’’ Dick said.

The comfort level these animals have around people has allowed researchers to conduct studies that would be virtually impossible with wild elk. Biologists have been able to take blood samples on a daily basis, do ultrasound tests to make fat measurements, conduct diet studies and much more. In one diet study, people walk beside the elk and record how many bites of specific types of vegetation they take. 

Some of the tame elk take time to get adjusted to new people coming into the handling facilities. Dick pointed out that the elk can quickly sense if an individual is unsure of him or herself. Some elk may get pushy with such a person.

“They need to know you are in charge. If you send the wrong message, they will be more aggressive,’’ Dick said. “It is important to be firm but not overbearing.’’ 

 Nobody is better at working with elk than the husband and wife team of John and Rachel Cook, research biologists with the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement. 

 “They are magical with them,’’ Dick said.   

The Cooks helped raise all the tame elk Starkey now has, devoting countless hours to the process. Dick speaks as if it would be almost possible to find anyone else capable of doing what the Cooks have done to the make the elk-taming project successful. 

“Their dedication is beyond belief,’’ Dick said.

The 37 tame elk kept at the handling facility area are among almost 600 elk in the Starkey Project’s 25,000-acre fenced facility. The Starkey Project is a joint wildlife research project conducted by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service at the Starkey Experimental Forest and Range, 28 miles southwest of La Grande. 

The project is designed to measure the population response of deer and elk to the intensively managed forests and rangelands of the future. Research at the Starkey Project started in 1989.