After a wet and shaky start, the small herd of elk transplanted onto Antelope Island last week appear to be doing well, according to park officials.
The transplant of 17 yearling bulls and cows didn't go quite as planned last week. The first few animals turned loose dashed across the beach and into the Great Salt Lake.They planted themselves on a sandbar about a quarter-mile offshore for a while, but at least three of them eventually drowned. The second group was more cooperative, thundering out of their horse trailers and up the slope of the island, away from the water's edge and into more hospitable rangeland.
Park Superintendent Mitch Larsson said an aerial survey of the island turned up 11 elk on Friday morning and three bodies were found washed ashore on the beach.
Three missing elk may also have drowned or could have come back onto the island and are staying out of sight, Larsson indicated.
Elk are strong swimmers and have been seen swimming across Bear Lake, Larsson said last week, so it's even possible the missing trio could have struck out for the mainland, away from the island.
The elk are an experimental herd, Larsson said, to see how they adapt to the island environment and how well the rangeland can support elk and its herd of 500 buffalo. The bulls were neutered so there will be no breeding or herd expansion for at least a year.
The two species subsist on the same type of forage, according to Larsson, so the elk herd will be monitored closely before it's allowed to expand.
"We didn't want to end up with a couple of hundred elk on the island, find it couldn't support them all along with the buffalo and then have to remove them," said Larsson.
Elk inhabited the island earlier in the century but either died off or were eradicated by hunters by the mid-1930s.
Larsson said a herd of about 50 pronghorn antelope that were reintroduced to the island on Jan. 31 are thriving. They are mostly grazing the island's north end, near Buffalo Point, a popular spot for visitors.
"The antelope are doing fine and enjoying all the sagebrush," Larsson said.
Plans call for eventually reintroducing upland game birds and a herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.
The elk were donated by Deseret Land & Livestock and were first rounded up and then corralled at Hardware Ranch in Cache County. After veterinary examinations that included weighing and measuring the animals, they were herded into Division of Wildlife Resources horse trailers and taken to the island Thursday afternoon.
The weight and size data will allow park rangers to determine if the individual animals are thriving on the island's range land, Larsson said.
The island state park remains closed to the public. Park spokesmen said Thursday it will be at least fall before it is reopened, although Davis County officials are trying to move that date up to this spring.