Bull elk numbers at the southern end of the Paradise Valley and just north of Yellowstone National Park have plummeted.

The most recent survey by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Karen Loveless, who is based in Livingston, recorded only 2.2 bulls per 100 cows.

“Ten bulls per cow is the red flag to do something,” Loveless said.

“We’ve had pretty good calf recruitment the last three years,” she continued. “We’ve had a good spike (bull) crop and yearling bulls. But the problem is we seem to be harvesting our crop of mature bulls.”

Bull harvest up

FWP had tightened hunting regulations the last two years, restricting the harvest to brow-tined bull elk only in the archery and rifle season to build up a herd that has continually declined from highs in the 1990s. To qualify, hunters had to apply for a permit for that hunting district, 313-45, as their first choice. But the permit numbers were not limited.

Most years the bull harvest has averaged around 160 to 180 animals, but in the last five to 10 years that has jumped to around 200 bulls, Loveless said, and last year it climbed to 315 bulls. Such a high harvest is not sustainable, she added.

The evidence of the decline was obvious this fall when Loveless would see groups of cows during the mating season with no bull in sight.

Predator rich

Any decline in elk numbers close to Yellowstone National Park immediately brings to mind the plentitude of predators in the region: mountain lions, black bears, grizzly bears, coyotes and wolves.

“Everything is eating those elk,” Loveless said. “They are the foundation of that whole system.”

But elk calf recruitment is climbing, so Loveless said she can’t point to predators as the cause of the recent bull decline.

“So I think harvesting is our current problem,” she said.

Regulation change

In response to the decline Loveless has already talked to Gardiner-area outfitters about changing the elk hunting regulations for next year to a limited draw permit. Those talks resulted in a lot of debate about the best solution to the problem.

“But each solution has flaws in it,” she said. “This is at a crisis point. If we have a hard winter it could be really bad.”

So Loveless is now drafting a proposal to change the elk hunting regulations. First it will be reviewed by her superiors, then it will go to the commission for tentative adoption in December. The public will have a chance to comment after that.

Bighorn sheep

Bull elk aren’t the only species declining significantly in southern Paradise Valley. Bighorn sheep that inhabit the Gardiner area experienced an outbreak of pneumonia in 2014 that decimated the herd and resulted in the closing of the bighorn hunting season in HD 305 this year.

This is an area rich with bighorn sheep history. Evidence of ancient sheep traps built by natives have been found in the rocky cliffs near Gardiner along the Yellowstone River. The nearby peaks have names like Big Horn, Ramshorn and two versions of Sheep Mountain. So unlike some other places in the state, this is a native herd.

Loveless flew the area recently to check on lamb survival since a flight in June provided a baseline of birth rates.

“If you have a chronic problem once the lambs are weaned they will lose resistance and die,” Loveless said.

Bighorns living in the upper Tom Miner Basin had good lamb survival, 20 to 30 lambs per 100 ewes, she said. But farther south near Electric Peak, just north of the Yellowstone border, there were “no lambs whatsoever,” Loveless said.

November rut

Those are the same sheep that winter near Cinnabar Mountain, just across the Yellowstone River from Corwin Springs and close to the Old Yellowstone Trail road, providing visitors with a close-up view of the animals.

At the end of March, the herd had already declined by 34 animals, down from 89 before the disease outbreak. Out of that herd, 40 percent of the dead animals were mature rams. By the end of this month, when the sheep typically descend to the Cinnabar area before the rut starts in early November, Loveless said she will have a better idea of how the herd is doing.

“It’s a pretty good percentage that we lost, but so far it’s not as bad as it could be,” Loveless said. “Sometimes there is close to nothing left.”

But she said the die-off is probably not over yet, and disease outbreaks could become a chronic problem.

“One of the theories is that some ewes hang on to the bacteria and keep shedding it,” Loveless said.

Research has also shown that the bacteria can be transmitted from healthy domestic sheep (or goats) to bighorn sheep, causing pneumonia in wild sheep. Domestic sheep still are being grazed nearby.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.