Jeffrey Gagnon sat in the pre-dawn chill at the base of the Mogollon Rim in a cramped travel trailer and watched as the elk on the closed circuit camera balanced hunger against caution. An elk examined the opening of the netted trap that surrounded the alluring pile of delicious alfalfa. Not right. Not right at all. Odd. Very odd. A little scary. But the alfalfa smells so nice. So nice. Very nice. The elk poked his head into the opening and peered about inside, trying to put this strange structure in the middle into the most vital of categories: Threat, no threat.
But ahhh, the smell of the alfalfa. Gotta get it. Gotta go.
So he moved into the enclosure, tensed and wary.
Nothing. Just the intoxicating aroma of the hay. Life is sweet.
So he moved in past the opening and lowered his head, seduced and heedless.
That’s when Gagnon, an Arizona Game and Fish Department wildlife biologist about to traumatize him for his own good, hit the switch and dropped the net across the opening.
Got another one.
So Gagnon put the call in to Norris Dodd, the project biologist managing one of the most ambitious attempts ever undertaken to study the behavior of wild elk along highways.
The next morning, they crept up on the enclosure, looped ropes around the feet of the trapped elk, pulling him to the ground and clamped on a satellite tracking collar so they can follow every move he makes for the next two years.
The elk and Gagnon were each playing their small, but crucial role, in curtailing a lopsided, but lethal war, that each year kills perhaps 200 human drivers and more than 1.5 million elk and deer. With each crash costing an estimated $2,300 in property damage, these wildlife encounters cause $10 billion in damages annually. Moreover, cars kill perhaps 1 million other vertebrates every day while creating barriers that fragment habitat and threaten some species with extinction, including high-profile examples like the Florida Panther.
Historically, a car hits an elk about once a week along that stretch of Highway 260. The area supports both a year-round elk population and elk that move down off the Rim as winter sets in.
Statewide, cars hit elk or deer more than 1,000 times a year in Arizona. In 2003, five drivers or their passengers died as a result, in addition to more than 1,000 animals — about half of them deer and elk.
This explains the importance of Gagnon and the elk he trapped, wrestled to the ground, radio collared and then tracked for two years. He’s one of the lead researchers who built and proved the value of a network of wildlife-friendly underpasses beneath the a widened State Route 260.
Nearly four years of effort has produced striking results along stretches of Highway 260 between Star Valley and Kohl’s Ranch.
The construction of elk-friendly highway overpasses with fencing to funnel animals to the specially design crossings reduced smash-ups involving elk in the Christopher Creek section by 86 percent.
A second phase of the project involved fencing several miles of highway to direct the elk, deer, javelina, mountain lions and other wildlife to the end of the fence line, where cameras and motion sensors detect the motion of the animals toward the highway and set off blinking yellow lights to slow drivers down.
Accidents on that section of the highway dropped by 96 percent, said Gagnon.
The cameras and motion sensors monitoring the movement of animals toward the highway detected 448 animals, including 307 elk, 68 deer, 56 javelina and a couple of mountain lions. Only 56 of those elk actually crossed, between May of 2007 and October of 2008. However, the fences deflected a much larger number of animals to the Preacher Canyon underpass — where cameras in the same period recorded 277 elk passing under the highway.
One study estimated that the $760,000 project to provide the fencing and the wildlife-friendly crossings prevented at least $180,000 in damages annually, assuming that each time a driver hits an elk it causes $1,700 in damages.
The program has proven so successful, that the Arizona Game and Fish Department and ADOT are now working on wildlife crossings for elk and deer on Interstate 17, for pronghorn on Highway 89, for elk and deer on Highway 64 approaching the Grand Canyon, and for bighorn sheep near Kingman.
“I’m so proud of Arizona,” says University of Utah researcher Patricia Cramer, a passionate advocate for wildlife-friendly highway design.
In Arizona, the issue of wildlife and highways got a big boost politically as a result of a lawsuit with potentially national implications.
In that case, someone hit an elk on the highway near Flagstaff — then drove off, leaving the carcass in the roadway. Some time later, Jerry Booth’s car hit the body in the darkness. Booth suffered serious injuries in the crash and sued the state for not keeping the roadway clear.
A jury in 2004 awarded him some $3 million, reasoning the state should have gotten the dead elk off the highway faster. An appeals court upheld the verdict, which sent a chill through state highway departments nationwide.
So when it came time to widen Arizona’s Highway 260, the state’s biologists and traffic engineers turned to Game and Fish researchers Dodd, Gagnon and others. The biologists have spent five years capturing, radio-collaring and monitoring more than 100 elk to study how the animals react to a combination of fences and wildlife-friendly underpasses.
The collars plus cameras watching the underpasses enabled the researchers to study how the elk reacted to both the highway and different underpass designs.
Since the satellite-connected radio collars record the elk’s position every two hours for two years, the biologists have accumulated a treasure trove of information about elk behavior.
The detailed tracking revealed that the elk won’t detour very far to use an underpass, which makes both fencing and the spacing of the underpasses crucial. It also revealed a relatively simple answer to the question — why did the elk cross the road? To get to the meadow on the other side.
The tracking data demonstrated the importance of understanding wildlife behavior in deciding where to put crossings. The distribution of the meadows on each side of the highway largely determined where the elk wanted to cross the road.
Moreover, the radio collars showed that a small percentage of the elk cross repeatedly — and they’re the ones most likely to end up getting smacked by a car.
The year-round elk act as pioneers and may speed the acceptance of the underpasses by the elk that migrate through the area. The elk much prefer underpasses with an open design lacking high concrete walls, presumably because the dark ledges at the top of the wall look like a great place for those notoriously sneaky mountain lions to lay in wait.
The key to finding ways to reduce elk collisions lay in the trapping and tracking effort by Gagnon and his team of Game and Fish researchers.
The project yielded an unprecedented windfall of data about elk behavior, since biologists have 30 to 40 elk at a time fitted with collars that record each elk’s position every two hours or so by satellite. The GPS collars drop off after two years and emit a homing signal, so biologists can hike through the woods, collect the collar and download the saved record of the elk’s movements.
The study has confirmed what the remarkable comeback of elk across the nation has suggested — one of the largest deer species in the Americas is tough, adaptable and semi-obsessive in their mating habits.
Consider their comeback.
By 1900, the native Merriam Elk had vanished and by 1922 only 90,000 elk remained in the U.S — nearly half of them in Yellowstone National Park. Today, Arizona alone harbors perhaps 35,000 elk, most descended from 83 animals released near Chevelon Creek atop the Mogollon Rim in 1913.
Only three things deeply concern elk, say biologists — mating, eating and not getting eaten. Once, you’d probably add wolves to that list, but hunters wiped out Arizona’s wolves, so the elk need worry only about the stray mountain lion (bears are actually a very efficient predator on calves).
Elk spend most of their lives segregated by sex. Females and the young wander about looking for tasty meadows, since they eat all sorts of things but get the most energy per bite from meadow grass — unless they happen upon a tempting pile of alfalfa. They also overheat easily, so elk bed down in the shade all day and come out mostly at night. This is when they cross the highway, usually making their meadow rounds.
The bulls spent most of the year alone in inaccessible canyons. But during the summer and fall, the bulls emerge from their seclusion to round up a harem of females, which they defend obsessively from other bulls. The younger bulls hang out on the edge of the harems, seeking love on the run.
So for a biologist like Gagnon, the project not only provided a chance to save lives, but a hands-on chance to learn more about elk.
On this particular capture, Gagnon and Dodd waited until dawn before approaching the trap carefully, not wanting to spook the already exasperated elk.
Approaching from behind a screen of trees with ropes in hand, they moved quickly to the enclosure. The elk snorted and rolled its eyes.
Gagnon slipped up behind, slid a rope under the bottom rail of the enclosure and caught one rear leg. Dodd then moved to loop a rope around a front hoof so they could pull the elk’s legs out from under him.
Then in the most dangerous moment of the operation, they opened the door and Gagnon jumped in on top of the prone elk and slipped a hood over his head. Now blind and confined, the elk immediately calmed down.
Working with practiced haste, they bolted on the radio collar, attached an ear tag and got out again before the elk becomes stressed or overheated.
Finally, they opened the trap’s door and jump back.
The elk hesitated a moment, then sprang out the door and dashed across the meadow and into the shelter of the trees.
He ran until he felt safe — not knowing Gagnon is going to know every move he makes for the next two years.
A rough night. But, hey. All’s well that ends well. Besides, the alfalfa was wonderful.
And now the scent of elk love is in the air.
Harems await beyond the underpass.
Life is good.