Cow elk that were captured earlier this year and fitted with GPS collars for a study in northeastern Montana have already revealed one interesting fact — some of the animals don’t see the wide Missouri River as a barrier to springtime travel.
More specific details won’t be known for two years, when the store-on-board GPS collars are programmed to drop off the animals for pickup and downloading to a computer. But the collars also emit a trackable radio signal that allows Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists to make sure the animals are still alive and to find their general location.
A monitoring flight last month showed that about one-third of the 25 elk captured in Hunting District 621 had moved south across the Missouri into HD 410, said Mark Sullivan, Region 6 wildlife manager.
“They may move back in the hunting season,” he said, which is what the study is all about — finding out where the elk are at different times of the year and how they move across the rugged, remote landscape. The collars collect the elk’s location every two hours. During that last flight, all 50 of the collared elk were still alive.
Sullivan said the elk herds in the hunting districts where the cows were collared are only about 300 above FWP’s population objectives. Herds to the east in HDs 630 and 631 are only slightly above or at objective, he added.
“We were a lot higher above objective five years ago,” Sullivan said, “but we’ve been cutting back on antlerless licenses as we have gotten closer to objective.”
Bighorn sheep are also doing well in the region, with their population peaking about six years ago in HD 680.
“Ram numbers are still really strong, and hunters are shooting some huge ones,” Sullivan said.
In HD 622 near the Larb Hills, FWP increased the number of ewe tags from five to 10 this year, so the odds of drawing a ewe tag in that area are twice as good.
“We don’t want to manage sheep for higher densities or disease breaks out,” Sullivan said.
Elk and bighorn sheep are two of the bright spots in northeastern Montana, which saw its deer, antelope and upland game bird populations plummet during the especially severe winter of 2010-11. Antelope suffered some of the greatest losses, as herds were killed while walking down the plowed railroad tracks as they tried to avoid deep snow.
Antelope populations won’t be surveyed until July, but Sullivan is hopeful that biologists will see some rebound. The winter of 2011-12 was fairly mild and this past winter, although the third-snowiest on record, featured warm periods that allowed snow to melt off and uncover vegetation.
Although last winter was mild, the summer featured an outbreak of deadly epizootic hemorrhagic disease that “really flattened” whitetail deer, Sullivan said. The fatal disease is spread by biting insects.
“There are still areas where the deer numbers are at objective, so we’ll continue to have over-the-counter whitetail B (doe) licenses in the east and west portions of the region,” he said. “Even here in the Glasgow area we’re seeing whitetails rebounding. Whitetails are going to come back the fastest.”
Mule deer are much slower to recover. Sullivan noted that the one good region for the animals is in the northeast corner of the state, near Plentywood. FWP is still issuing B tags for that district, while B tags in other districts are being cut further.
“It will take awhile to build them back up,” Sullivan said.
This spring’s wetter-than-normal weather that has caused flooding may affect Region 6’s upland bird numbers, since young chicks can’t regulate their temperature well until they are fully feathered.
Sullivan said sage grouse populations are a little bit lower across the region, possibly due to an outbreak of West Nile virus last summer. Biologists noted a slight drop in sage grouse numbers at their leks, or breeding grounds.
Sharp-tailed grouse and pheasant seem to be doing fine, he added, and since pheasant are known to re-nest if their first brood dies, cover conditions for them should be excellent thanks to all of the rain-nourished plant growth.