Combat Aviation Brigade, Public Works join for annual elk count
Fort Riley Garrison Public Affairs
Shuffling into an airfield conference room in an array of snow pants and Carhartts for a pre-flight brief, Shawn Stratton, Fort Riley’s supervisory Fish and Wildlife Biologist, and a team from Fort Riley’s Directorate of Public Works Environmental Division staff were conducting final preparations for their annual elk count with an air of anticipation Jan. 15. Although a lack of January snow until then meant their task would be more difficult, the team wasn’t about to shy away from the challenge.
The excursion was conducted via two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, to cover ground faster. Each team was made up of three experienced team members to help locate the elk and ensure the accuracy of the count.
So how does the team manage to spot the elk from the air when they blend in with the landscape? Large numbers of elk often group together in winter as food becomes scarcer and stress levels rise, making them easier to see.
“Usually this time of year they are going to be in big groups together,” Stratton explained. “It wouldn’t be unusual for us to see a herd of twenty-plus together. Sometimes they are in one big group in the impact area where there can be anywhere from 40 to 60 animals together.”
But because this winter has been milder and food sources have been more secure, the team was also anticipating seeing some smaller groups of two or three.
“A lot of times the bulls will break off from the herd and there will be a bachelor group of bulls together separate from the cows and calves,” Stratton said.
Through the counts, a target population of 175 to 200 elk has historically been maintained on the installation. However, in the late 1990s the population peaked at more than 300, causing damage to local farmers. In efforts to counter this, distributing a regulated number of elk permits to hunters has served as a critical method to control the population over the years.
“There were quite a few complaints from private land owners, so the state did issue quite a few permits the next two consecutive years to knock the heard back to an acceptable level,” Stratton said. “They can do quite a bit of damage on a land owner’s cornfield.”
During the count, numbers of bulls, yearling bulls, also known as spikes, cows and calves, were carefully annotated in different columns on the team members’ clipboards. Stratton said that it is important for the Environmental Division staff to determine how many of each type of elk are on the installation following each hunting season because it allows them to monitor the strength of the herd and recommend the number of elk tags that should be given out the following year.
In 2015, the state of Kansas, who conducts the drawings, distributed 26 elk tags via lottery – 15 antlerless only, 10 either sex and one non-profit tag which is usually raffled to raise money for a conservation project. Active-duty Soldiers, who receive preference in the drawing, normally end up with roughly 50 percent of those tags.
“The elk herd is a limited resource. So we keep close tabs on the numbers so that the elk herd will last as long as we can make it last,” said Wildlife Biologist Tom Duckworth, who has worked in the environmental department on Fort Riley for 20 years. “We need to be responsible and keep tabs on their numbers and allow the number of permits that will help us to sustain the numbers that we have.”
Environmental Division Chief and Native Kansan Herb Abel, Fort Riley employee since 1982, agreed. “Having the elk here is in part a demonstration of the Army’s stewardship of the environment,” he said. He further explained how the elk, originally native to the state of Kansas, were nearly wiped out by the turn of the 20th century due to European settlement and unregulated hunting. It was Fort Riley, in cooperation with Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism, and local conservation groups, who worked to reintroduced an elk herd back into the wild in the 1980s.
“The fact that we’ve reintroduced them here and the fact that we have a sustained herd here is an indicator of the quality of native habitat that the Army maintains on the Installation. It’s just one of the indicators. It alone doesn’t demonstrate that we’ve got a good natural environment. But it along with the prairie chickens, and the stream fishes and all of that that we have are good indicators that military training and the natural environment can coexist very well.”
The environmental department on Fort Riley also track deer, Bald Eagles, Greater Prairie Chickens, and other lesser-known species like Brown Bats and a variety of native plants throughout the year.
This year, the count yielded findings of more than 200 elk on the
installation, an indicator of a strong and vibrant herd, which, with the help of the Environmental Division, will hopefully continue to thrive on Fort Riley for many years to come.