Wyoming Game & Fish biologists count elk in the Jackson region with infrared cameras
Jackson, WY, USA – Counting wildlife is rarely easy, but some situations prove more challenging than others.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, in its constant effort to get the most accurate wildlife counts, recently employed using infrared cameras to count elk from the air along the Snake River corridor between Grand Teton National Park and the town of Wilson.
Game and Fish biologists and wardens have long believed this segment of the Jackson Elk Herd is rapidly growing, but it has been difficult to get a good count in the area because it is dominated by private land with many homes, making access limited from the ground.
Traditional aerial surveys have also proven difficult because a dense tree canopy, of both cottonwood and conifer trees, greatly reduces visibility. Plus, wildlife managers generally do not conduct low elevation aerial surveys in such areas to avoid disturbing private homeowners.
The infrared aerial surveys are able to be flown at a relatively high elevation, approximately 3,000 feet in a fixed-wing aircraft, yet still detect animals through thick vegetation.
The infrared camera shows heat signatures given off by the animals. The new technology is now being used to survey hard-to-detect wildlife including a variety of big game species, large carnivores and even sage grouse.
In 2011, despite the limited access and difficult counting conditions, Wyoming Game and Fish managers conducted an elk survey along this section of the Snake River and counted approximately 600 animals at that time.
The recent infrared survey resulted in a count of 840 animals. Even with the new technology, almost certainly some animals were missed, although managers believe the survey detected at least 90 percent of the animals present.
The results of the survey basically confirmed what wildlife managers suspected, that there is a significant number of elk, probably between 900-1,000 animals, occupying this Snake River corridor.
This high number of elk, coupled with the fact that this segment is producing calves at approximately twice the rate as the rest of the herd, causes concern for wildlife managers.
Controlling the growth of this segment of the Jackson Elk Herd is always going to be challenging since many of the elk are found on private land where hunting opportunities are limited.
The only other two opportunities to apply hunting pressure on these elk are through the Elk Reduction Program in Grand Teton National Park during their migration or on the National Elk Refuge.
To date, hunting has not proven effective at slowing the growth of this segment of the herd and managers predict it will continue to grow and make up a larger portion of the entire herd.
The overall population objective for the Jackson Elk Herd is 11,000 animals. The population of the herd has been estimated at or near this target number for the past several years, despite the growing segment along the Snake River.
This has only been possible by a slower growth rate being realized in the other segments of the herd to the north and east. State established herd objectives are periodically reviewed. The population objective Jackson Elk Herd is slated to be reviewed and discussed publicly in the late spring of 2016.
There is also an established target number of 5,000 elk utilizing supplemental feed on the National Elk Refuge as outlined in the Jackson Bison & Elk Management Plan.
The number of elk being fed on the National Elk Refuge has been above that target number in recent years and is likely being influenced by this growing segment of elk along the Snake River and in southern Grand Teton National Park.
Again, hunting to curb the growth in the southern portion of the Jackson Elk Herd is critically important to maintaining balance within the entire herd.
(Mark Gocke, WGFD Public Information Officer 307-733-2321)