Did you ever wonder how the DNR determines how many elk there are? In order to responsibly manage the elk population, the DNR needs to know where the elk are located and how many there are. The Department of Natural Resources conducts aerial elk surveys every other year in northern Michigan.

Two fixed-wing Cessna 182 airplanes are used for the elk survey. Three DNR staff are in the plane: a pilot and two observers. Observers look out the window on each side of the plane for elk as the plane is flying about 80 mph and 500 feet in the air.

The planes do not fly around looking for elk just anywhere; instead, to conduct the most effective survey, grids are placed onto a global positioning system (GPS) unite. Each grid is two miles wide and six miles long and the entire elk management area is broken into 86 grids. Several passes will be made within the grid to adequately cover the survey area. This allows for optimal viewing to find herds, or even locate lone elk standing in the snow. When an elk is spotted, the pilot starts circling to allow staff to count the elk.

The aerial survey usually begins in early January, after enough snow has fallen to make it easy to spot elk. The survey allows staff to see where elk are gathering, and to get an idea of the number of male elk (bulls), female elk (cows), and young elk (calves). This survey provided the data needed for DNR wildlife biologists to recommend license quotas to the Natural Resources Commission for the 2012 elk hunting seasons.

The goal for elk management in Michigan is to achieve optimal elk viewing and hunting opportunities with minimal timber browse and agricultural damage impacts. The core of the elk range is an area from Indian River east to Onaway south to Atlanta and back west to Vanderbilt. But elk also live outside that area. Hunting is the best management tool to control the elk population and distribution.

“Our survey was delayed by about two weeks this year, due to low snow accumulations,” stated Wildlife Biologist Mark Monroe. “Fortunately we got the snow we needed, and we ended up having a great survey.” DNR staff flew the entire elk range from January 18 to February 1. Several days had to be cancelled due to poor visibility but weather conditions improved and those days were made up in reasonable time.

In the end, a total of 850 individual elk were counted, which provided an estimated population of 1042 elk. “We know that we do not see every elk because the plane is moving fast and elk are sometimes under heavy cover,” stated UP Wildlife Biologist Dean Beyer. “Therefore, aerial counts underestimate the number of elk in the population.” To provide a more accurate estimate of elk, totals are adjusted with a correction factor that accounts for the elk missed. This correction factor was established by running experimental trials on radio-collared elk. This is now a standard practice among wildlife managers throughout the nation.

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