COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho — Idaho Fish and Game said a study using helicopters and GPS collars is providing valuable insight on elk populations in North Idaho.

This week, the agency started the sixth year of the study that aims to examine elk survival patterns in the panhandle. The survey involves tracking elk populations using a contracted helicopter crew that spots elk calves.

After being identified, the calves are shot with tranquilizer darts and fitted with a special GPS collar that transmits data on the animals’ location to IDFG. The collars are designed to expand as the elk grow, eventually snapping off the wide necks of larger bull elk while remaining on the necks of cow elk.

“They’re released in a matter of minutes. It’s pretty impressive,” said IDFG spokeswoman and biologist Kiira Siitari of the helicopter, darting, and collaring procedure.

While the GPS collars provide movements of elk herds, it also provides information and a location of where and when the animals die.

“That’s one of the most important parts of this study,” Siitari said. “It’s basically CSI biology, trying to find out what killed that animal.”

The manner of death for each animal can provide insight as to how elk populations are surviving and what underlying causes behind calf deaths could be. One of the most important revelations from the study, Siitari said, is how much of a role weather can play on elk survival.

During a mild winter, elk populations can have a survival rate as high as 80 percent, compared to 40 percent during harsh winters. A cold stretch of weather in the spring of 2018 resulted in elk deaths, Siitari added.

“Their fat reserves got depleted and the calf elk kind of struggled with that,” she said.

The study also examines what kind of predators, primarily cougars and wolves, are killing elk and how often. Siitari said that data from the study has shown that statistics fluctuate between which predator is responsible for more elk deaths.

“Most years, it’s mountain lions that are taking more calf elk than wolves.” 

Siitari added, however, that in 2018 wolves accounted for roughly a quarter of all elk calf deaths.

This year, IDFG plans to fit 60 collars on elk calves across the Idaho Panhandle. Primary areas of focus include the Silver Valley, North Fork Coeur d’Alene River and St. Joe River drainages.

“The longer-term data is what really excites biologists,” Siitari said, noting that the study would also look at elk habitats and how those environments could potentially be improved.