Looks of disbelief could be seen on the faces of Starkey Project visitors on June 20, 2012, when Brian Dick, the wildlife research center’s manager, called out, “Come here, gals” — and female elk came running.
The visitors, adults in the middle of a Starkey Project tour, reached through a wooden fence to pat the heads of the elk. It was hard to tell who enjoyed greeting the other the most, the elk or the people.
The elk had been tamed in 1993 as calves so they could be easily handled by people conducting research. Dick assisted in the process during the first year of his tenure as the manager of the Starkey Project site at the Starkey Experimental Forest and Range, a tenure that concluded in late July when he retired.
Dick said his career with the Starkey Project was as challenging as it was fulfilling, filled with many joyful moments like that June day in 2012, when he was able to connect the public to wildlife.
“In terms of my abilities and interests, I could not have asked for a better fit, not in a million years,” Dick said.
Dick came to Union County from Nevada, where he had worked for the Bureau of Land Management for four years. He admits he was a bit overwhelmed his first year as he determined how to best operate a site where cutting-edge deer and elk wildlife research projects are conducted.
“I wondered what I had gotten myself into,” Dick said.
His doubts vanished after his first year when Starkey Project operations began humming with greater efficiency. Dick credits this to a staff of talented and dedicated people.
“My staff has been a joy to supervise,” he said.
It is a staff that has had the unusual opportunity to get to know tamed elk on a daily basis. The elk were all captured within 48 hours of being born and then bottle fed by people as part of an intense domestication process.
Today a total of eight of these elk, all cows 25 to 26 years old, are still alive and at the Starkey Project. They are anomalies, for elk are notoriously shy around people. These elk are curious and in many cases eager to greet
everyone they come into contact with. Dick said when visitors come to the handling facility where the elk are kept, the animals need little encouragement to come forward.
“They want to see who the new people are,” Dick said.
The elks’ differing personalities are apparent when people are around.
“Some are standoffish and some want attention,” Dick said of the elk, who are all named.
They were raised by Rachel and John Cook, researchers with the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement. Dick gives the Cooks a lion’s share of the credit for the success of the taming project. They devoted countless hours to raising and developing bonds with the animals that today are stronger than ever.
“(The Cooks) are like mom and dad to them,” Dick said.
During Dick’s tenure, the Starkey Project was the site of more than 80 studies conducted in collaboration with more than 60 research and management partners. The studies resulted in more than 400 publications in research journals.
Results of a number of the studies have played a major role in changing how big game are managed. For example, a breeding bull study more than 10 years ago determined young spike elk take twice as long to impregnate cow elk as older branch-antlered bulls. After this study was released, the state placed greater limitations on harvesting branch-antlered bulls — resulting in more calves being born earlier in the spring and thus having a better chance of surviving their first winter than calves born weeks later.
Dick helped coordinate all studies at the Starkey Project. He was responsible for making arrangements so the studies could be conducted without interference from other activities at Starkey.
“This was no small feat,” said Mike Wisdom, lead scientist for the Starkey Project, noting a wide range of studies are conducted at Starkey, many of which involve a variety of scientific disciplines and large expanses of land.
Wisdom credits Dick with having the ideal personality for providing the direction needed to prevent conflicts among researchers working in the same area.
“You have to have a lot of diplomacy and tact and still be assertive,” Wisdom said.
Dick’s role went beyond that of coordinator of field research. He was also charged with the annual care of wintering herds of mule deer and elk. He routinely captured and handled hundreds of animals each winter to collect data on their physical condition. Animals were weighed and measured and blood samples were taken.
The data Dick collected was an integral part of many studies at the Starkey Project.