An intensive March classification flight of Northern Yellowstone elk has given greater insight to the makeup of the herd.
The helicopter-based count, which ranged from 6-Mile Creek in the Paradise Valley south into Yellowstone National Park’s Soda Butte Creek, found 7,500 elk. Of that total, 71 percent — or almost 5,000 animals — were cows and 11 percent were bulls, or about 800. The rest were calves, which averaged out to 23.3 per 100 cows. Another 600 elk couldn’t be classified.
“We scoured that area at treetop level, which is much better at finding elk,” said Karen Loveless, a wildlife biologist for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “So that’s really different from the counts we do each year.”
The rigorous tally was made because the herd has been at the center of a controversy between FWP, which wanted to reduce the bull harvest in Hunting District 313, and some hunters and outfitters who didn’t want any further hunting restrictions. HD 313 covers Paradise Valley, where the majority of Yellowstone elk migrate in winter.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission ended up compromising by allowing unlimited brow-tined bull elk hunting for the first three weeks of the rifle season. Only 50 permits were issued for bull elk for the last two weeks of the season. FWP can also close the season along a migratory route used by the elk with only 24 hours of notice.
The reduction in bull elk harvest was sought because HD 313 has seen a steady decline in big bulls.
According to FWP’s annual trend count the number of adult bulls per 100 cows counted in Montana fell to 2.7 last winter. FWP has set the ideal number at 10 per 100 cows. The last time the count for the herd was above 10 bulls per 100 cows was in 2002.
The classification of the entire herd, which included elk inside Montana and Yellowstone, showed 8.7 brow-tined bulls per 100 cows. The bull ratio is higher inside the park because fewer big bulls migrate out while more than two-thirds of the cows leave. That bumps the brow-tined bull to cow ratio inside the park to 23.6 bulls per 100 cows.
The ratio of bulls to cows used to be higher in Montana because hunters shot more cow elk, claimed Susan Johnson, of Hell’s A-Roarin Outfitters near Gardiner, who opposed the hunting restrictions.
“We’re still better than almost any other hunting district,” Johnson said. “We’re a thriving herd for sure. Every year is better.”
FWP’s Game Management Bureau chief John Vore agreed that the herd’s population is trending up, but added that there has long been an expectation that Northern Yellowstone should produce large bulls. With the trend of large bulls in Montana’s HD 313 going down, the agency has steadily tried to decrease opportunity to kill those males.
But hitting 10 bulls per 100 cows may not be a realistic objective for a herd that now co-exists with such a large number of predators — from wolves to bears and cougars, said Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association.
Minard said if the herd is growing with the current ratio of bulls then there is no biological problem. But if the goal is to have a trophy bull hunting district then FWP needs to have that conversation with the hunting public.
Loveless agreed that there is no “biological crisis” right now.
“We’d like to manage for a healthy number of bulls rather than wait for where reproduction is affected,” she said. “We’d like to hold back now.”
She said the department doesn’t have population trend numbers specifically for six-point bulls in HD 313. That information only comes through harvest data. The estimated harvest of bulls in HD 313 has gone from 28 percent of the total harvest in 2004 to 90 percent in 2014 as antlerless restrictions have been enacted to grow the herd. Figures for 2015 are not available yet.
So although the overall elk numbers have climbed, mature bull numbers have fallen and bull harvests have increased.
“The fear is we’re harvesting mature bulls and not replacing them,” Loveless said.