When I met Idaho Fish and Game district conservation officer Mark Sands in the Bi-Mart parking lot Friday morning for a ride-along to view the elk- and deer-feeding programs in the area, he told me we had to make a detour on our way out of town.
There was an elk living in a city park — and it was time for him to go.
When we arrived at Weiser Memorial Park a few minutes later, we found the elk hanging out in a picnic shelter surrounded by picnic tables. About 30 yards away was a snow-covered baseball diamond that apparently was going to hold practices beginning this weekend. Two people were on hand taking pictures of the elk, who had been fed by locals while living in town for at least three weeks and at one point had electric wire wrapped in his antlers.
He apparently liked his spot and had little desire to return to the wild. Sands tried to “haze” the animal into leaving. Sands made some sounds, fired a starter’s pistol and eventually shot the elk with rubber buck shot. The elk barely moved.
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“I’ve never had an elk do that,” Sands said. “Usually they just run away.”
He called for help — he needed someone with a tranquilizer — and we headed to the surrounding farmlands to see the feeding operations that are winding down as the snowpack dwindles (more on that program next week).
We returned to the park nearly three hours later. The elk hadn’t moved more than a few feet. Fish and Game and city employees spread out and moved toward the elk. Two of the Fish and Game folks had rifles loaded with tranquilizers — and that finally spooked him.
The elk took off from his hiding spot and wandered across the baseball and football fields. When he reached the bleachers, he turned back toward the picnic shelter. As he got close, he was shot with the tranquilizer. The elk ran across the road into a field — the drug takes three to five minutes to work — and eventually flopped down under a tree. A crew of seven Fish and Game and city employees converged on the animal, moved him onto a tarp and slid him across the snow-covered field to a waiting horse trailer.
“We’ll haul him out of town where we’ve got some other elk and let him go,” said Nathan Borg, a wildlife biologist based in McCall.
As soon as the elk was loaded, he was given the drug that counteracts the sedative. Fish and Game wanted him alert and standing before beginning the drive to the foothills for release. We left the park less than 40 minutes after he was tranquilized.
“We monitor heart rate and temperature because they lose the ability to thermoregulate under anesthesia,” Borg said. “... It looks like he came through anesthesia really well.”
We drove out the dirt Rock Creek Road to a serene location in the foothills north of Weiser, with city employees Lonnie Chambers and Pete Ney transporting the elk in Chambers’ trailer. The plan was supposed to be simple — open the trailer door and get out of the way.
But the elk that was so stubborn about leaving the picnic shelter had similar feelings about the trailer. Sands, Chambers and Ney tried making sounds, banging on the trailer, driving forward with the door open, swatting the elk on the hind quarters with a ski pole, yanking the tarp out from under him (in case that was creating fear) and discussed several other possibilities. Finally, we tried giving the elk some space. And just as a plan was made to leave the horse trailer there and come back later to see if the elk finally left, he decided to emerge. He headed into the open fields, only partially covered with snow, and walked slowly away. He’d been in the trailer for about an hour and 15 minutes total, including more than a half-hour after the door was opened.