A crew member from Leading Edge Aviation places a GPS collar on an elk within Olympic National Park. Photo courtesy of Leading Edge Aviation

The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the National Park Service collaborated recently to study the elk in Olympic National Park.

The park service and the tribe worked with a helicopter crew to capture 18 elk and fit them with radio collars this fall.

The collars will help show biologists the migration patterns of herds within the Elwha River valley and around lakes Aldwell and Mills before and after the removal of the Elwha River’s two dams. The dams will be removed starting in September 2011.

The biologists are also interested in how the elk use the area for habitat, including feeding and resting.

The local U.S. Geological Survey and NPS offices are trying to get the most accurate counts of elk populations in the river drainages in the core area of the park, including the Queets, Quinault, Hoh and Elwha. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe has been conducting its own elk population studies in the area, so the two entities decided to work together.

“We wanted to put radio collars on elk that reside in the high country during summer but who we hoped would use the shores of Lake Aldwell and Lake Mills during winter,” said Kim Sager-Fradkin, the tribe’s wildlife biologist. “Because the collars are expected to function for several years, we hope to monitor use by elk of the restored floodplains after dam removal. The tribe and the park are both interested in knowing how the elk will respond once the reservoirs no longer contain water, so it seemed natural that we work together.”

Elk need habitat that includes plentiful water, grasses and woody plants.

“It’s been a really positive collaboration with the park, with both of us having the same end goal of seeing how the elk use the areas around the lakes,” Sager-Fradkin said. “We all have elk questions and many of them overlap, so it’s nice to put the resources together.”

“Gathering various types of data helps round out the overall population assessment that we’re trying to conduct of these elk,” said Patti Happe, the park’s wildlife branch chief.  “We figured this would be a great opportunity to get elk movement patterns prior to dam removal and follow through with restoration activities.”

The 108-foot Elwha Dam and the 210-foot Glines Canyon dam are owned by the federal government; the Olympic National Park is spearheading the removal effort. The project to remove the structures and restore the Elwha River ecosystem, estimated at $350 million, is the largest dam removal project to date in the United States.