Covering more than 5,000 square miles of private, state and national forest land, South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks conducted an aerial elk survey of the entire Black Hills this winter and survey results have been tallied.
"It was a huge undertaking," says John Kanta, Regional Wildlife Manager of the $160,000 project which involved more than 20 Game, Fish & Parks staff and about 175 hours of fly time.
The 2013 elk aerial survey is the first to take in the entire Black Hills and was wholly funded by hunting license dollars. Flying only 40 to 50 feet above the ground, GF&P wildlife biologists scouted every square mile of the Black Hills from helicopter.
"Snow cover is invaluable to this effort," Kanta says. "It allows us to spot the elk better in all habitat types and get an accurate count."
When the biologists spot a group of elk, they count every animal and identify the sex and age of the elk in the group. The wildlife biologists also document the percent of visual obstruction caused by trees or vegetation. All this data is then entered into a sightability model.
"The model was developed using years of data collected during research conducted by South Dakota State University and is basically designed to correct for elk not seen because of a number of reasons," Kanta says.
Although ground surveys are conducted annually, in order to obtain the most accurate count, Kanta says collecting the data from the air is essential.
"This is the absolute best way to observe elk populations. Because of the terrain it would be impossible to cover the entire Black Hills from the ground," he says.
A bird's eye view is not only essential, it also allows the survey to be conducted in a timely fashion - because as Kanta points out, elk don't stay in one place for long. Utilizing GPS technology surveying is a systematic process.
"Our team broke the Black Hills into 254 subunits and then used GPS technology to fly and survey a specific subunit. This systematic approach ensures we don't miss anything," Kanta says.
Once the surveys are complete the GF&P team compiles and enters the data collected into the sightability model to generate a population estimate. According to 2013 data, Kanta says the Black Hills elk population is healthy - but there is room for improvement.
"Overall we have a good population of elk. Although the heart of the Black Hills looks good, densities in the eastern portion of the Hills are lower and we'd like to see them increase."
Survey Impacts License Numbers
Kanta says a lot rides on the survey results. Each year almost 13,000 hunters vie for the coveted elk licenses through a lottery system. Last year 570 rifle licenses and 97 archery licenses were issued.
According to the 2013 survey, there are just over 6,000 elk in the Black Hills including Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. GF&P wildlife biologists will use the information gathered from the 2013 Elk Survey to develop management plans for the Black Hills. These plans include how many rifle and archery elk licenses to issue.
"Without survey data we would be managing the Black Hills' elk population on our best educated guess," Kanta says.
The 2013 aerial survey also demonstrated the value in aerial surveys as recent ground surveys were off by about 2,000 elk. Moving forward the GF&P plan to conduct similar aerial surveys every three to five years.
"Prior to this year's survey, our estimates were conservative," Kanta says.
According to historical data, Black Hills elk numbers can vary greatly depending on the harvest pressure, lion predation, disease, vehicle strikes, weather and fire events. For example, survey data from 2000 show record high numbers of elk following the Jasper Fire. "The fire opened up a lot more habitat to elk, who like open green areas for feeding that are surrounded by forest for protection," Kanta explains.
However, by 2008, numbers were low, so GF&P responded by reducing the number of licenses issued. Now that numbers have begun to rebound, Kanta says hunters can expect more licenses to be made available in the years to come.
GF&P also shares the data they collect with other agencies who manage wildlife within the state. This is an invaluable tool says Greg Schroeder, Chief of Natural Resources at Wind Cave National Park.
"Although we conduct our own surveys from the ground and have a good handle on the elk population within the park, it's beneficial to have numbers from an aerial survey to compare with our ground count," Schroeder says. "When it comes to managing wildlife, we can't consider ourselves an island. We're part of an entire ecosystem."
Hunters can enter into the elk license lottery by either filling out a handwritten form or completing an on-line application at gfp.sd.gov and submitting a $5 nonrefundable fee. To view a video shot from the survey helicopter visit the South Dakota GF&P YouTube channel.