DUBOIS, Pa. — Honors students in the Penn State DuBois Wildlife Technology program had an exclusive opportunity for hands-on learning recently with members of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s (PGC) biological staff. The PGC is currently researching reproductive trends among Pennsylvania’s elk herd in hopes of improving the overall health of the herd and increasing the population. To that end, four first-year honors students from the program, with their instructor Keely Roen, joined Elk Biologist Jeremy Banfield and Elk Biologist Aide Avery Corondi in chemically immobilizing a cow, or female elk, so that blood samples crucial to these conservation efforts be collected.
“We collected blood samples during our hunting season for elk, which happens in the first full week of November, and we’ve been testing for pregnancy, and it’s been suspiciously low. Around 55 to 60 percent,” Banfield explained, noting that the pregnancy rates in November would ideally be at around 90 percent. “So, we are collecting blood samples now, later in the season, to see if pregnancy increased. Basically, we want to see that if you give the animals more time to breed, will pregnancy go up.”
While this research is still in its very early stages, Banfield said seeing pregnancy rates increase into the spring is not actually a positive finding. He said late season pregnancy among female elk means an increased mortality rate for their calves and hopes that most cows will be pregnant earlier in the season. Ultimately, through this research, they hope to understand why that isn’t happening.
“It’s going to depend on what we find here, what our next step is. When you have either low pregnancy or late pregnancy, it obviously influences the population. So, we are trying to deduce what’s going on here so we can hopefully correct it in the future,” Banfield said. “You want the animals to be bred in as short of a window as possible. Early on in late September is the prime period. The reason is that the rut [breeding season] is rough on both genders, especially bulls that can lose up to 20 percent of their body weight.
"Also, nature has evolved this way so that the calves that are born during the end of May, beginning of June, which is the prime time for vegetation, and that’s a good time," added Banfield. "Food is plentiful, and they can gain weight fast. If they’re born late, they don’t have as much time to gain that weight and have lower chances of survival going into the fall, so we don’t want late pregnancy. We want the population to grow; more importantly we want the natural process to work as it should, but right now it appears that it’s not.”
While these early steps of this research will hopefully reveal why these late pregnancies are happening, Corondi added that it is a confusing setback for the population of a species that otherwise is poised for great survival and reproductive success in the Commonwealth. She said, “It’s high quality forage we have here, so there’s plenty of food, a great bull to cow ratio, and no natural predators. These animals really have very few stressors, so the pregnancy rates should be higher.”
The process by which samples are collected for this research is challenging, adding another layer of difficulty for these wildlife professionals. They are specifically targeting female elk, three-and-a-half years of age and older. They must first locate a group of animals, visually identify an individual they hope to collect samples from, then close in, getting into range for a clean shot with an air powered gun that fires darts that deliver the immobilizing chemicals that sedate the elk long enough for samples to be collected. The safe range to ensure a chance at a clean shot with that device is about 40 yards. Just immobilizing the animal alone can take a great deal of know-how and woodsmanship.