SNOW SHOE – Jeremy Banfield pulled up to a gated area somewhere inside Sproul State Forest. He drove through, then suddenly stopped, pulled up his binoculars and scanned an open field bordered by pine trees.
“Look for the brown hump,” he said, scanning the area.
Banfield, a wildlife biologist in elk management, is an employee of the state Game Commission. He’s been out combing areas like this one since May 26, looking for the coveted Pennsylvania elk.
He spends three hours in the morning searching, not for a big, hearty bull but for a cow – either a very pregnant one about to “drop” her calf or a cow off by itself, which could mean a calf is nearby.
Elk calves really are Banfield’s target.
His search starts early, at 5:15 a.m., when daylight breaks in late spring.
Early morning is when the cows come out to feed not only themselves but to nurse their calves.
On one June day, when Banfield had invited me to search for calves with him, it didn’t take very long before I spotted a very nice bull. Another flash of brown ran when the bull took off, and I told Banfield, “I think that was a cow.”
That’s when the real work began.
Banfield jumped from the truck and said it was time to do some walking. He grabbed his backpack and we headed into an open field area, which was a food plot planted with grasses by the Game Commission.
All this work, in a short time period, is done in hopes of being able to radio collar an elk calf and collect valuable data. The information is used specifically for the annual survey the commission does in January.
“We put the radio collar on, weigh them, sex them. The collar will stay on until we remove it, it falls off or they die,” Banfield said.
The collar is stretchy and has sewn sections so when the calf grows, the collar expands, too.
“We have six collars. I would love to see all six collars go out. This is more (like) a monitoring exercise, and we are trying to get the collars in strategic locations,” he said.
The work he does in late spring involves a great deal of “looking at a lot, driving, cruising around, just hoping you come across a cow that has a calf,” he said.
The window is short. Once the cow drops, or gives birth to, her calf, Banfield said they have about five days to catch it. After that, the 30- or 40-pound “baby” is too fast.
When birthing time nears, a cow elk will move away from its herd.
“She will separate from the herd and will drop her calf,” he said. “She will stay with that calf from one to two weeks and rejoin the herd (with her calf).”
Sometimes when a lone cow is found, Banfield and others helping him, either from the Game Commission or private volunteers, will just keep an eye on her instead of immediately approaching.
“We might watch her for a while, see what she’s doing, see if she indicates if she has a calf or (if we can) see the calf nursing,” he said.
If a calf is spotted or there are signs one is there, Banfield said they might approach her and gauge her behavior.
“We might put a little pressure on her and try to approach her if she has a calf, she will stick around and does one of those things where she is looking at you and looking at the ground,” he said.
The crew will search through the grass or the forest floor, usually in a grid pattern. Their mission is to spot a flattened-out, spotted elk calf.
None of what they are doing is harmful to the elk calf or its mother, Banfield said.
“When we actually collar a calf, we are in there maybe three to five minutes at the very most,” he said. “The cow is hanging out nearby and I am sure she is a little worried – it’s a stressful time. We make sure they reunite and they usually book it off somewhere.”
Radio collars such as the ones used on the Pennsylvania elk herd provide a tremendous value in terms of collecting information. Some of the data is used to help the Game Commission determine how many hunting licenses to permit later in the year.
“The two major components for our tag allocation are the population, and the radio collars are used for that; and the second is elk human conflicts,” Banfield said.