Getting an eyeful of elk during Black Hills aerial survey

2013-03-06T06:30:00Z 2013-04-04T18:41:28Z Getting an eyeful of elk during Black Hills aerial surveyKevin Woster Journal staff Rapid City Journal
March 06, 2013 6:30 am  • 

Pretty amazing.

That's what more than 1,200 elk are, rumbling through the snow in one herd.

And that's how state Game, Fish & Parks Department wildlife manager John Kanta described the herd he saw last week near Jewel Cave National Monument west of Custer during an aerial elk survey.

"It was the most elk I've ever seen in one place in the Black Hills," Kanta said. "It was pretty amazing."

It wasn't just amazing to Kanta, either.

Mark Stott, a Perryman, Ore., helicopter pilot who has flown over herds in some of the nation's top elk ranges, has never seen one bigger, either.

“It was the most elk I’ve ever seen, too,” Stott said. “And I do this for a living.”

Stott works for Alaska-based Quicksilver Air, Inc., which is working under contract with GF&P on the comprehensive aerial survey of elk in the Black Hills. GF&P is contracting for this work, which began in mid-February and is continuing this month, to get a better count on the Black Hills elk herd.

It also seeks to answer critics of GF&P big-game management, who question the department's 2012 estimate of elk population of 4,000 in South Dakota's part of the Black Hills, which also extend into Wyoming.

Kanta and Stott saw more than a fourth of that estimate in one place last week. And Kanta said the 1,200 estimate was probably conservative.

It was big enough and scattered enough that it took two pictures to capture most of it.

But Kanta also said there were other areas of the Black Hills where elk were very scarce.

"We're not done yet, but so far this survey has shown me that we have areas with great numbers of elk and other areas that are almost devoid of elk," he said. "I certainly think there is work to be done to bring numbers back in some areas."

Two helicopters and their crews from Quicksilver Air engaged in some of that work last week. They took part in a helicopter drive that pushed more than 200 elk out of Wind Cave National Park into adjoining Custer State Park and national forest.

Another helicopter drive may take place later this week or early next as Wind Cave officials cooperate with GF&P to reduce the elk population in the park. The aerial survey work, however, is their primary duty here.

The two helicopters have been landing on and taking off from the parking lot in the shop-garage area of the Outdoor Campus-West in northwest Rapid City. The helicopters are kept in a garage overnight.

Kanta and another GF&P wildlife specialist ride with the pilots to help direct the survey and observe and photograph elk.

The helicopters also are fitted with cameras that shoot stills and video.

It's unlikely that any image will top those caught last week of the large elk herd in a generally open area known as the Jasper Burn. The Jasper Fire burned 83,508 acres in August of 2000, initially devastating the forest area there.

But the resulting open meadows and diversity of grass and other vegetation favored by elk has also been a magnet for the large members of the deer family, which seem to be thriving there.

"They like those open areas with that good grass to graze on," Kanta said.

Kanta said the population and distribution information from the survey will help GF&P manage the Black Hills elk herd. That management work included designing hunting seasons and determining how many licenses to issue.

"The population estimate allows us to model the population and test different harvest strategies before implementing so that we know what kind of impact we may have on the population," Kanta said.

That's the practical part of the aerial survey. But there's room, too, under those whirling helicopter blades for simple amazement.

Which is just what Kanta experienced when he saw that Jasper Burn herd.

Contact Kevin Woster at 394-8413 or

Copyright 2015 Rapid City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(16) Comments

  1. wildcat
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    wildcat - March 08, 2013 9:47 am
    "I certainly think there is work to be done to bring numbers back in some areas."
    No kiddin !!

    South Dakotans who love seeing elk are perhaps still pondering statements from this article, presented last April, "Fewer Black Hills elk licenses for 2012" Stated there, we read, "The elk population was nearing 7,000 around 2004..." Then we read, "'We set up the decrease in population, and we did a good job at it,'" he (Kanta) said.

    Some believe there are far fewer than 4000 elk in the Hills - hope to soon see an article revealing all the results of this year's elk survey!
  2. Antifascist
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    Antifascist - March 07, 2013 1:18 pm
    The helicopter has also been flying over the northern hills.
    I'd like to see some more pictures like that and know what their total count is for the hills.
  3. Steve B
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    Steve B - March 07, 2013 10:23 am
    jstady2002 - you nailed it! Too many foks don't have a clue as to what is really going on out there, but form their opinions based on bits and pieces of information. Many will look at the picture of 1200 elk and ask "what are the hunters complaining about?" - look at all the elk out there. But as you said, this is primarily the entire Black Hills elk herd. It is a far cry from the 4,000 that GF&P was claiming last summer, and even further from the 5,500 population goal that they claim they want to manage for now. This photo, intentionally or not, will create a false impression in the minds of many. One has to wonder if it wasn't intentional with the goal of improving GF&P's image with the public by making it look like they are really on top of the situation.
  4. Report Abuse
    - March 07, 2013 8:53 am
    Was just wondering, and no I'm not a lion hunter, though I'd like to shoot one with a camera sometime. Thanks for the info though!

    The article wasn't super clear on where these animals were, so I assumed Wind cave, (that's what I get for assuming).

    These articles make for interesting reads!
  5. dangerous
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    dangerous - March 07, 2013 8:43 am
    Jeepers, did you even read the article or do you know anything about Black Hills geography? The photo was taken in the Jasper Burn, probably 10 to 20 miles away from either Wind Cave or Custer State Parks.
  6. cedarstrip
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    cedarstrip - March 07, 2013 7:08 am
    Question: Why is there such a shortage of elk in Custer State park and an excess in neighboring Wind Cave? .. most blame the lions for the demise of the elk in Custer State park.. but maybe it is habitat or lack or it.. or some other issue. Does not quite add up for me.
  7. rdennis
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    rdennis - March 06, 2013 4:43 pm
    "But the resulting open meadows and diversity of grass and other vegetation favored by elk has also been a magnet for the large members of the deer family, which seem to be thriving there."

    And there ladies and gents, you have it. Pretty hard to sustain much of a herd of elk with little to no feed. And remember all the hue and cry when the Jasper fire was going? But THAT is what is needed in the Black Hills to promote sustainable herds of elk, deer and yes, lions., who prey on the elk and to get rid of more tree's... oh that's right, Mother Nature already beat you to the punch and used beetles to thin them. Guess how she is fixing to finish the job? Good luck stopping her, she has had many more years practice playing this game and if we don't go along and help her,. she will take over....but hey, at least there will be lot's of work for firefighters!
  8. Fighter
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    Fighter - March 06, 2013 4:16 pm
    Now I know what helicopter has been flying over my house, nearly touching the tree tops!
  9. jstady2002
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    jstady2002 - March 06, 2013 4:14 pm
    This group of elk was NOT in wind cave. This is an entirely different article then the ones regarding the elk in wind cave and pushing them out. It is correct that they bunch up, there are no fences containing the herd. This is primarily the entire black hills elk herd. Anyone who knows about elk in the black hills will tell you they migrate south and a few herds migrate to the fringes of the hills. People don't understand that in the northern hills the snow is to deep and there is no forage. Yes it may look like the population is high for that area but it is misleading. The lion population estimate is hard to figure but when you kill how many in city limits during the summer is makes you wonder why? Food and territory is why. The winter has not favored lion hunters who primarily follow fresh tracks. Others may call but when an animal has been educated (hunted) for the last 5 years they become call shy and wiser.
  10. Steve B
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    Steve B - March 06, 2013 1:32 pm
    "Also curious that so few lions have been harvested when their population count was supposed to be so high? Makes you wonder."

    Have you been outside lately?? Or ever hunted lions?? When there is no snow for tracking, hunting lions is pretty much an exercise in futility, and there have been very few hunters out for quite some time. Connect the dots...
  11. Report Abuse
    - March 06, 2013 11:52 am

    The federal side is fenced-in with a really high fence as I recall. They took this down to chase elk into the Custer State Park side.

    I don't think they can just "bunch up" with a really high fence in the way. This does make some officials look bad though, underestimating the heard by 2/3. Certainly work to be done in population re-distribution.

    Also curious that so few lions have been harvested when their population count was supposed to be so high? Makes you wonder.
  12. Oricofl9
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    Oricofl9 - March 06, 2013 10:01 am
    Do you even read the articles about the elk management? There have been numerous articles stating they are moving SOME elk from Wind Cave to Custer State Park. Wind Cave has an over abundance of Elk.
  13. Corko
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    Corko - March 06, 2013 9:38 am
    I agree a 100 percent why you suppose there trying to chase them into the park is its cause there isn't as many as gfp would like to see cause of the lions.
  14. Corko
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    Corko - March 06, 2013 9:33 am
    Can someone tell me what the plan is with the elk. Do they plan on chasing all them into the park or what??
  15. Rhudedog
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    Rhudedog - March 06, 2013 7:43 am
    It's like an eHarmony elk's dream come true
  16. dangerous
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    dangerous - March 06, 2013 7:33 am
    Before we get any ignorant comments from the anti-lion hunting crowd like "I thought the hunters said that the mountain lions killed all the elk!!!!", please be aware that elk have a habit of bunching up in the winter months. This photo could contain nearly every elk in the southern Black Hills. It still isn't enough.
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