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Chopper crew stops mountain lion attack on elk in Custer State Park

CUSTER (AP) -- Officials say a helicopter crew at Custer State Park managed to prevent a repeat of an incident a year ago in which a hungry mountain lion helped itself to an elk that had been drugged for study researchers.

The helicopter crew fires sedation darts at elk to help state researchers with a study of elk reproduction and calf survival in the western South Dakota park. Cow elk are sedated then fitted with implants and radio collars so they can be located after they give birth in the spring. Their calves are then fitted with radio collars so they can be tracked.

Last year, one elk hit by a dart staggered into some vegetation and tipped over in front of a mountain lion that promptly turned it into lunch.

It nearly happened again last week, Chad Lehman, senior wildlife biologist for the state Game, Fish and Parks Department, told the media. The helicopter crew on Feb. 26 had fired sedation darts to subdue an elk and then picked up Lehman and other wildlife officials for a ride to the animal.

"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."

This time, the helicopter crew was able to drive the mountain lion away by buzzing low over the top of the animal and then hovering between it and the elk until the big cat gave up.

"Last year, that elk had been under the drug for a while. It was almost asleep," Lehman said. "This year, the elk had just been darted, and the lion came out of thick timber to chase it. The guys in the helicopter did a great job of separating the lion from the elk."

Lehman said researchers are grateful the helicopter crew was able to intervene this time around.

"I don't want to put elk in harm's way by doing this research," he said.