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Montana elk management

by Warren Illi
| September 8, 2022 12:00 AM

The best part of Northwest Montana’s archery hunting season for elk will come in two weeks when bull elk will lose much of their normal caution and instinct for survival during the peak of the annual rut. Bull elk will have only one thing on their mind, finding and breeding cow elk.

As you read this column, the bulls are gathering all the local lady elk into their harams. Then they will run themselves ragged making sure other bulls don’t try to breed their cows. About the third week of September, the cows will be ready to be bred. Herd bulls, usually the biggest and strongest bulls will do most of the breeding. This will ensure that their dominant male genetics will be passed on to the next generation of elk.

A couple of weeks ago, with the prime archery elk hunting just around the corner, I attended a local Fish, Wildlife and Parks public meeting on the review and revision of the old 2005 Montana Elk Management Plan. This public meeting was attended by all the key FWP elk management biologists for Northwest Montana.

The old 2005 plan is badly outdated. I envisioned a meeting that would discuss possible solutions to the vast over-supply of elk, located mostly on large private ranches in central Montana. The management of these elk on millions of acres of intermingled public land and private ranch lands has been the major statewide FWP wildlife issue during the last couple of years.

But I was wrong. This public meeting and discussion was centered on the scarcity of elk in Northwest Montana. Every elk management unit throughout Montana, has a specific target elk population objective, including cow-calf ratios and mature bull numbers. One thing that was absolutely clear, is that no one at the meeting was very happy with the low number of elk in Northwest Montana. Our local elk problem is exactly opposite the excessively high elk numbers in central Montana.

The meeting hardly started when several members of the public quickly blamed the cause of our local low elk numbers on the excessive number of wolves, killing and eating our local elk 24-7. The opinion of those folks was not to be denied. Wolves are the primary problem! Get rid of the wolves and elk would multiple! Unfortunately, solutions to complex wildlife management problems are seldom solved with a simple answer. State wildlife personnel had trouble getting discussion on other aspects of elk management.

One experienced elk hunter stated that in the past, he would brag to his out-of-state hunting buddies that he never went archery hunting for bull elk without hearing an elk bugle. Last year, he never heard a single bull elk bugle!

While I believe that wolves are part of the reason for low elk numbers in Northwest Montana, most of the research reports I’ve seen show that mountain lions usually kill more elk and deer than wolves. But wolves are the newest local major predator, so they tend to get the blame. Also, bears, especially black bears, have been found to be major killers of elk calves. Bears seem to have the ability to find elk calving grounds and prey heavily on helpless new-born calves.

No one mentioned that low elk numbers may be related to lower quality habitat. Lower elk harvest numbers over the past 20-30 years may be related to reduced timber harvest on national forest lands in Northwest Montana. Studies conducted at the Starkey Experimental Forest in Northeast Oregon have clearly shown that cutting mature coniferous forests opens the forest floor to more sunlight and moisture that produces tons of high-quality elk food. Quality habitat is always a key aspect of any deer and elk population. Environmental groups have made it almost impossible to cut trees on national forest lands in Northwest Montana, where most of us hunt elk. So, high quality elk habitat is lacking, especially from the elk food production standpoint. FWP manages the wildlife, but not most of the elk habitat in Northwest Montana.

One member of the public, a retired professional outfitter and guide, talked about the similar lack of elk in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. He said that many professionally guided out-of-state hunters never see an elk, let alone a bull elk, during their week-long hunts in the backcountry. Thirty to 50 years ago, the Bob Marshall Wilderness was one of the primer elk hunting areas in the United States. So, low elk numbers are a problem throughout Northwest Montana.

FWP gathered in all the public comments from that meeting and will consider them as they draft a new state elk management plan. They will also have to consider input from the general public, not just elk hunters.

There is no doubt that many members of the public like wolves as well as elk. FWP has the impossible job of finding some middle ground.

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