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Helicopter Crew Helps Park Track Elk

February 6, 2013, 5:57 PM by Derek Olson

Helicopter Crew Helps Park Track Elk

Wind Cave National Park has more than double the number of elk that it can support, so park staff are implementing a plan that could help cut herd sizes while repopulating other parts of the Black Hills.

"We've got extra and there's places for those extras to go and so we're cooperating with the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, and Custer State Parks in order to provide some of those animals into those locations," Wind Cave National Park biological science technician Duane Weber said.

But tracking the animals can be tricky, so park officials have called in some help from above.

"We have a group of honest to goodness, roughstock cowboys and one of them has a helicopter," Weber said.

The adrenaline junkies carrying out the high-flying operation aren't known as cowboys or animal handlers. They're known as muggers.

"Yes, they're generically referred to as muggers.  They mug the animal to the ground that's their job," Weber said.

Other than a little bit of short term stress, the muggers aren't out to hurt the elk. Once the animals are under control, they put tracking collars on the elk.

"We'll be pushing a sizable number of animals out of the park later this winter and those radio collars will help us monitor the success of that effort," Weber said.

Before the elk are released, the muggers also take blood samples from the animals and check their general health.

"We always take blood samples because it's always a baseline bit of information, and since we're also catching cows we'll also be looking at pregnancy rates here," Weber said.

Three-dozen tracking collars will ultimately be used to track female elk.  The collars have a battery life of two-years and will be recovered from the animals after that time is up.

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