WHITEROCKS, Uintah County — Randall Thacker knows what he's looking for. He can spot it from more than 200 feet in the air.
"We've got a track over here on this side that looks somewhat fresh," the Division of Wildlife Resources biologist says from the left front seat of the helicopter.
As the pilot flies a predetermined grid over the sagebrush-studded plateaus at the base of the Uinta Mountains, the reason for the flight comes into view. It's a herd of elk at least 100 strong.
"Did you get any bulls?" Thacker asks over the intercom, after the pilot has dropped to 60 feet off the ground and circled the herd twice.
"Just one," DWR sensitive species biologist Brian Maxfield responds from the backseat.
"I was going to say, I didn't see much," Thacker says.
Thacker, Maxfield and dozens of other DWR employees can spend weeks in the air at this time of year, surveying acres of prime elk habitat around the state.
"We want to know how many bulls we have, what the total count is," Thacker said before going airborne Friday. "How many calves we have, too. We're trying to break out how many calves out of the bunches.
"We're doing a census, so we want to get every elk we can see up there," he said, noting that the count breaks bulls down into subcategories: spikes, 2-year-olds, and those animals who are older. It also records how many moose are spotted from the air.
We can estimate (the elk population) pretty well for a couple of years, but at that point we want to 'ground truth' our population estimates and make sure they're staying about where we think they are.
–Randall Thacker, DWR
The aerial elk survey takes place in each of Utah's wildlife units on a rotating three-year schedule. In addition to the north and south slope of the Uintas, this year's areas include the Wasatch Mountains, the mountains of Central Utah and a few areas in the southern part of the state.
"More than half of the elk habitat in the state is getting flown this year," Thacker said.
The surveys are partially funded by conservation permits that are auctioned off at sportsmen's banquets. The rest of the money comes from the division's big game budget.
Wildlife biologists said the flights are a critical part of their job.
"We can estimate (the elk population) pretty well for a couple of years, but at that point we want to ‘ground truth' our population estimates and make sure they're staying about where we think they are," Thacker said.
The more accurate count allows the DWR to make informed decisions about how to best manage the state's elk herds.
"On many units we're exceeding our population objectives — what we've agreed to have and manage on these units," Thacker said.
"We aren't able to kill enough cows, actually," he said. "We need to control that and this count is when we decide how many antlerless permits — cow tags — we'll have for the next two or three years."