Wind Cave uses helicopters to disperse elk herd

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RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - Using a helicopter to push wild animals from one area to another would seem to be a relatively easy operation, but state Game, Fish & Parks wildlife manager John Kanta and officials from Wind Cave National Park know better.

“It’s a lot tougher than you might think,” Kanta said of a cooperative effort between state and federal wildlife officials and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to reduce the numbers of elk in the park near Hot Springs.

Two helicopters were used for the second time in March in hazing the elk toward temporary openings in a seven-foot woven wire barrier fence. Workers peeled back the fences, then had to close up the openings just as quickly to keep the elk from doubling back.

“There’s a lot of logistics that go into that,” said Duane Weber, Wind Cave biologist. “It takes a little coordination and a lot of patience. I liken it to a military experience. It was kind of a hurry-up-and-wait thing.”

Wind Cave, the nation’s eighth national park and first cave so designated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, boasts the fifth largest cave in the world with more than 120 miles of mapped underground passages and caverns.

The park is also a refuge to abundant numbers of bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, mule deer, coyotes and prairie dogs.

An estimated 900 elk called the 33,000-acre park home and that was too many, as far as park officials were concerned.

“Based on our forage calculations, our population was doing fine, but they were eating more than their share, and hence we wanted to push those numbers down,” Weber said.

In 2009, officials approved a management plan, including installation of a barrier fence in the hopes that elk would disperse where hunters could have access to them.

Last fall’s first use of helicopters resulted in about 250 animals being moved. About 100 made their way back into the park. Some of the animals actually dug their way under the fence, said Greg Schroeder, Wind Cave chief resource manager.

Elk are instinctively compelled to return to their home territory and also seemed to know when hunting season started and where they needed to go to be safe. Hunting is not allowed in the national park system.

“As we oftentimes do, we don’t give wildlife enough credit,” Kanta said. “They’re smart enough to know where the hunting season is open and where it isn’t. They did take refuge in the park.”

Kanta had three jobs to do while riding shotgun in one of two helicopters used to drive elk on March 12 and 13.

“I direct the helicopter pilots on where we want to go and which elk we want to push,” he said. “I count the elk and try to get a good estimate on what we’re pushing out of the park, and three, I watch to make sure where the other helicopter is and help them be safe,” he said.

One helicopter stays behind groups of the animals to drive them and the other maneuvers the animals in the general desired direction. All easier said than done, Kanta said.

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