Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Reviewing the elk management plan

by Warren Illi
| December 14, 2023 12:00 AM

During the last few days, I have been reading the new 470-page Montana Statewide Elk Management Plan. What was of most interest to me and probably most hunters, is found on pages 15-41.

These pages outline elk hunting, economics, population trends, habitat, predation and harvest strategies. There is lots of good information for the serious elk hunter.  

Over the last 20 years the number of elk hunters in Montana has been steady at about 115,000 hunters with 90,000 resident hunters and the rest being non-resident hunters. Hunters spend about 1 million hunter days pursuing elk and about $187,000,000 for elk hunting. Elk hunting is big business in Montana. 

Pages 15-41 of the Plan outline elk habitat management problems and population dynamics. If you want to read a shorter version of these elk management challenges, read the article, More Mountain Meadows in the November-December issue of FWP’s Montana Outdoors magazine. This article was written by Andrew McKean, the hunting editor for Outdoor Life. McKean lives in Northeast Montana. 

Both of these writings focus in on a number of elk management problems that are leading to a substantial reduction in the number of elk for most of Montana, especially Western Montana. Don’t get me wrong, Montana still offers some world class elk hunting, but the overall elk population is declining and hunter success rates are declining. 

While there are a number of reasons for the elk population decline, both writings list the decline primarily on the declining amount of high-quality summer and early fall elk habitat. Both the Elk Plan and the magazine article speak to this habitat decline like this is a recent scientific discovery. It isn’t!

During the 1980s and 1990s the Flathead National Forest, which surrounds the Flathead Valley, the Kootenai National Forest lying to the west and the Lolo National Forest, south of McGregor Lake were cutting about 400 million board feet of timber each year. Northwest Montana had a vibrant timber industry and lots of deer and elk. This commercial harvest of large volumes of timber required the cutting of thousands of acres of mature and over-mature timber stands each year. Since most timber harvesting was in mountain terrain, the timber harvest method of clear cutting was the normal timber cutting prescription. Extensive logging road construction was necessary to access this timber resource. 

The timber harvesting or removal of mature and over-mature timber stands, allowed more sunlight and more moisture to reach the ground or forest floor. All timber harvesting included plans for reforestation of new forests on the cut acres. But these new timber stands would not have closed canopies for 20 or more years.  

This allowed the continued growth, for a decade or two, of ground cover that included these nutritious new grasses, succulent shrubs and small plants, which was the ideal late spring, summer and early fall food sources for deer and elk. Deer and elk grew fat. With this layer of fat, deer and elk could easily survive Montana’s cold snowy winters. 

These healthy cow elk had higher cow elk pregnancy rates and produced more healthy calves that could withstand wildland survival. In those days we also had no wolves and fewer mountain lions chewing 24-7 on deer and elk, especially calves and fawns.

But in the 1960s, Congress passed a number of new environmental laws that environmental groups used to halt most new timber sales on public land. The older clearcuts eventually became covered with dense stands of young trees which shaded out the nutritious ground cover that normally came in after logging. This loss of nutritious vegetation was vital to maintaining healthy deer and elk herds. Both the new state elk management plan and McKean’s article pointed out it is the loss of these vibrant nutritious mountain meadows or openings, after timber harvest, that caused the decline of our elk population.

What was surprising to me is that both McKean’s article and the new elk plan seemed to imply that the need for nutritious summer habitat is a new biological discovery. 

When I moved to the Flathead National Forest in the early 1980s, I worked with a young FWP biologist, Shawn Riley, who said that whitetail deer wore their winter range on their backs. What he meant was that deer and elk, with good quality summer and early fall habitat, developed a thick layer of fat on their backs. During Montana’s cold snowy winters, this fat was reabsorbed by their bodies to sustain them during the winter.  

Yet, during the last 40 years, wildlife officials seemed to ignore the need for rich summer habitat. Instead, they concentrated their efforts to improving winter range. Now don’t get me wrong, I believe that good winter range for deer and elk is important, but you cannot ignore the critical need for good summer habitat. McKean suggests that forest fires may be the answer to creating better summer elk habitat. I disagree. The problem with forest fires is that they create smokey air that is bad for human health. It is this increasing concern with human health that will force land managers to quickly attempt to put out all forest fires. 

The world has changed in the last 40 years. Wildlife officials and public land managers are now charged with managing good habitat for a wide range of wildlife species, not just deer and elk. Hunters must recognize that many members of the public would just as soon see a rare owl, song bird or wolf as a bull elk. 

Big game hunters no longer have substantial influence on how our public lands are managed. And that may mean continued fewer deer and elk. Like it or not, that is our current world.