Quinault Indian Nation studies hands-off approach to elk capture

Helicopter surveys are considered the most reliable way to manage elk populations, but they’re also expensive, laborious and dangerous.

The Quinault Indian Nation and partners are studying whether a camera-based system could make the task cheaper, easier and safer.

The tribe will compare results from a traditional aerial method to a newly developed technique adopted as part of the multi-tribe Olympic Cougar Project.

If results are similar, the promise of the latter method could be fulfilled and would be a boon for scientists, agencies and wildlife beyond the Quinault Reservation.

“It would be a huge benefit if these models work,” said Kristen Phillips, the tribe’s wildlife section manager. “Mark-recapture studies wouldn’t be needed to estimate population size. You could use a remote method where you wouldn’t have to handle the animals.”

With support from the Quinault Business Committee, Phillips won a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The nearly $200,000 grant funded an aerial survey and follow-up efforts that included locating and temporarily immobilizing elk on the reservation before fitting them with location-tracking collars.

While the animals were immobilized, crews, including staff from the Makah Tribe and Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, also took genetic information and blood samples before reviving them.

This type of survey can carry plenty of benefits, such as determining a population’s size and composition.

“There’s a huge use for it,” Phillips said. “If you know how many animals you have, and you also know survival and reproductive rates, you can determine the trajectory of a population.”

The grant-funded survey carries additional importance thanks to a team of researchers at the University of Montana.

In 2018, they developed a statistical model to estimate wildlife populations that had previously required more resource-intensive methods, such as capturing and recapturing wildlife. The method required only a system of cameras, and the Quinault Indian Nation had such a system; it is a participant in the Olympic Cougar Project, a collaboration between the the Lower Elwha Klallam, Makah, Skokomish, Port Gamble S’Klallam and Jamestown S’Klallam tribes, and the nonprofit Panthera.

Part of the project includes the use of cameras to estimate populations of wildlife including cougar, black bear, bobcats, deer—and elk.

Elk is an animal of particular cultural and spiritual importance to Quinault tribal members and their treaty rights. Local elk populations are the main source of meat provided to elders, people with disabilities and others in need.

The grant from Fish and Wildlife will tie in directly to those treaty rights beyond providing a useful population estimate; it also funds meetings with tribal hunters and with high-school students interested in wildlife-related careers.

Quinault staff conducted an elk survey earlier this year that may help determine if there’s a more efficient methods to conduct surveys in the future. Photo: Trevor Pyle