A South Dakota helicopter crew firing sedation darts last week at elk in Custer State Park saw a repeat of a lion attack that killed a sedated elk during similar operations last year.
This year, the elk cow elk survived, however, thanks to some timely interference from the helicopter.
“I tell you what, it was unbelievable to have this happen two years in a row,” said Chad Lehman, senior wildlife biologist for the state Game, Fish & Parks Department in the park. “We were just really happy that the guys in the helicopter were able to thwart the lion attack this year.”
The helicopter crew from Quicksilver Air, a company with bases in Alaska and Colorado, is helping state researchers with a study of elk reproduction and calf survival in the park. The Quicksilver crew fired sedation darts from the helicopter to subdue the elk and then picked up Lehman and other wildlife professionals for a ride to the elk.
“We were waiting for the shuttle when we heard the pilot say over the radio, ‘You guys aren’t going to believe this, but we just had a mountain lion attack one of your drugged elk,’” Lehman said. “We told them we could believe it, because last year we had a lion eat one of our drugged elk.”
The cow elk in the study must be sedated so vaginal implants as well as collars can be fitted to locate the animals after they give birth this spring. Their calves will be fitted with radio collars so they can be followed.
During the helicopter work last year, one of the cow elk hit with a dart was almost immediately attacked and killed by a mountain lion. Another elk was chased by a lion last year, the helicopter crew reported.
This year, a lion made a run at an elk Feb. 26. But this time, the helicopter pilot got involved, first buzzing low over the lion, which stopped and stared at the chattering machine but took off after the elk again.
So the pilot got more aggressive and dropped the chopper down to hover between the lion and the elk until the cat gave up and ran into the trees.