Rim Country Elk Tagged, Released

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"It's rodeo time," Norris Dodd said, as he moved down a gentle slope in the forest near Little Green Valley to where an elk had been trapped the night before.

Dodd, a research biologist for the Arizona Department of Game and Fish, assisted by research technician Jeff Gagnon, were about to put a global positioning collar on the trapped cow.

"We've contracted with ADOT to do a research project to evaluate the relationships of wildlife to the Highway 260 upgrade," Dodd said. "This is the first section they've completed, and because this whole section from here to the Rim has got a lot of areas where there's a lot of collisions with elk and deer, they've put in these underpasses that are pretty expensive between a half million and a million each."

The first phase of the Highway 260 improvement project the $21 million Preacher Canyon Section was opened to the public last October. Besides the bridges spanning Preacher Canyon, four additional underpass bridges were built for wildlife crossings primarily to funnel elk under rather than across the road.

A preliminary study indicated that the Little Green Valley area was first in the state in car-elk collisions. When the Highway 260 project is finished from Payson to Heber in 20 years, if all goes as planned there will be a total of 11 such wildlife underpasses.

The elk collar program is specifically designed to evaluate their effectiveness.

"One aspect of it is the fencing associated with the underpasses that is supposed to funnel the elk into here," Dodd said. "Basically the elk will go where they want to go, so (the question is) have they built enough fencing to make the underpasses effective?"

A total of 24 global positioning collars had already been affixed to elk, but one was killed recently and the collar recovered. The cow that Dodd had trapped would replace the one that died.

As officers approached the trap, a low-tech device consisting of a box with netting and a sliding door, the cow was bouncing off one wall of netting after another trying to escape.

Dodd and Gagnon quickly got ropes around a front and back leg, pulled the cow down, and covered her with a blindfold. In just a moment the cow stopped struggling.

Five of the 24 collars are more high-tech than the one being placed on the trapped cow.

"(With those five collars), one set of satellites flies over the elks and gets their location, then another set flies over, picks up the information and transmits it to my home," Dodd said. "That way, I get daily readings."

The other 19 collars, including the one going on the captured cow, have storage units and provide data every three days. When the study is complete in two years, all the collars automatically "pop off" and can be reused.

The GPS collars are a vast improvement over prior technology.

"We get 12 locations a day, where we used to get just one, or you'd have to do it by sight," Dodd said. "And once you got in close enough to see the elk, you've biased (the study) for maybe two days."

Another advantage is that the GPS collars provide information on night movements.

"We're basically 8-5 biologists, so before these new collars night information was pretty rare," Dodd said.

But the greatest advantage to GPS technology is the accuracy.

"When there are three or more satellites involved, the readings are accurate to within three meters," he said.

After the collar is affixed and adjusted to allow room for growth, Dodd and Gagnon untie the cow. She explodes out of the net and bounds into the forest to rejoin the herd.

Eventually video cameras will also be installed at the underpasses, which will provide even more information especially on the size of the herds crossing back and forth.

Preliminary data suggests that after an initial period of resistance, the animals are accepting and using the underpasses.

"We were concerned we'd put these up and the animals would say, 'We're outta here,' and be up on the Mogollon Rim or down in Hells Gate," Dodd said. "That hasn't happened. They've stuck right in here."

No matter how sophisticated the collars, there's only one way to attach them with your bare hands.

While this cow was pretty routine, Dodd pauses before heading out to reminisce about one that wasn't.

"We caught five or six of them with drop nets, which are nice because you can take them to where the elk are," he said. "The last one was a bull and all you could see in that net was antlers. On the way up to him I'm going, 'We're going to regret this.' By the time we got him collared, he had dragged us 150 yards across the meadow. Talk about a rodeo."

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