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"Long-term studies of elk, deer, and cattle - examining the effects of ungulates on ecosystems"


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Winter Feeding and Handling


Research within the enclosure takes place during spring, summer, and fall. Research is designed to measure deer and elk response to habitat changes on summer range only. Because winter range and migration are not part of the research, deer and elk are kept at a low-elevation, 805-acre feed site during winter.

To insure that only the effects of summer conditions are measured in the research, elk and deer are fed hay and pellets during winter so that the effects of winter weather on body condition are held constant. Using winter as a control period allows researchers to measure population, energy, and physiological responses of deer and elk to the summer range studies.

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The winter feeding and handling area is an 805-acre fenced portion of the 25,000 acre Starkey Project enclosure consisting of four primary pens, seven pastures, and an "alley" leading to the elk handling facility. Deer and elk are kept in separate pastures.

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During the winter months deer and elk are fed to maintain a consistent body condition regardless of weather. Deer are fed 5 pounds of alfalfa hay or pellets per day and elk are fed 10 pounds of alfalfa hay or pellets per day. The average amount of hay is adjusted upward as the weather becomes colder or the snow becomes deeper. The hay and pellets are distributed in long lines throughout each pasture to prevent the larger, more aggressive males from dominating the food source. Also, deer and elk are fed separately so that elk don't dominate the food source. Pellets are also placed in feed troughs. Deer tend to utilize the pellets better than hay, and elk use both hay and pellets effectively.

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Most animals are baited to the winter area with alfalfa hay or are live-trapped in the study area. Researchers then transport trapped animals to the winter area. Animals that do not come to the winter area are fed in place and tested in the same manner as animals at the winter area.

The winter feeding and handling facility is at a relatively low elevation (3,800 feet) within the enclosure; many animals naturally migrate in this direction.

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To measure the effects of summer habitat change on animals, researchers check the physical health and reproductive status of the herds. This is most easily done when animals are concentrated at the winter area. While the animals are being handled, all unnecessary noise and activity is minimized to reduce potential stress from human interaction.

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The specially designed series of chutes and pens at the elk handling facility allows researchers to get close enough to safely and efficiently check animals for pregnancy, disease, and overall body condition.

Elk are moved in small groups of 20 or less from pastures down the alley, then separated into smaller numbers-about 10 to 12 animals-and moved to a holding pen. Singly, elk are moved through the handling facility to an electronic scale to check their weight. They then are contained in a squeeze chute and are blindfolded to minimize stress caused by direct human contact.

Once an elk is in the squeeze chute, researchers are able to check the animal's age by looking at its teeth, draw blood to test for disease and pregnancy status, and change or equip the animal with a radio collar or ear tags.

After testing, the animals are returned to the appropriate pastures through a series of gates. Within the pastures, researchers document the number of offspring produced and the population status of the herds. Surplus animals can be loaded onto a truck at the handling facility and released outside the enclosure.

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Because deer react poorly to pens and chutes, they are trapped and handled individually. As with elk, deer are checked for pregnancy and disease, weighed, then collared and tagged. After handling, deer are released into appropriate pasture or can be safely placed inside narrow wooden boxes, loaded on a pickup truck, and released within the enclosure or to the outside.

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Wild, hunted herds of deer and elk throughout the western United States are often fed during severe winters when natural forage is not available. Research animals at Starkey are treated no differently. Like many free-ranging herds, they are fed during the winter, but are subject to a wide array of human disturbances the rest of the year as part of the research--including road-building, road traffic, logging, cattle grazing, hunting and other recreational activities that are traditional uses of National forests. Deer and elk have not become "semi-tame" on summer ranges in other areas where these activities are common.

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"Long-term studies of elk, deer, and cattle in managed forests."
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