Good habitat

Elk are thriving north of the Missouri River in Fish Wildlife and Parks’ Region 6 management area.

Elk are thriving in northeastern and north-central Montana, according to recent Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks aerial surveys, particularly in the Bears Paw Mountains.

More than 830 elk were counted in the two hunting districts that encompass the Bears Paw Mountains, HDs 680 and 690 south of Havre, according to Scott Hemmer, FWP wildlife biologist. That elk population is 134 percent above last year and 57 percent above the long-term average. The population objective for the two hunting districts is 250 animals.

One of the reasons for the rising elk population is that hunting on private land in the island mountain range is restricted. Another reason for the increase was likely due to an expansion of the survey area farther south along Cow Creek.

In the Bears Paw Mountains survey area, the current cow-calf ratio is 39 cows per 100 calves. Although that figure is down 25 percent from the long-term average, it’s enviable when compared to the Northern Yellowstone elk herd in southwestern Montana. Last year, those animals saw cow-to-calf ratios of 11 calves per 100 cows. Biologists like to see about a 20-percent ratio to sustain a herd and a 30-percent ratio for the population to increase.

The bull-cow ratio in the Bears Paw Mountains was 63 bulls to 100 cows, which is 11 percent below the long-term average.

The elk population continued to grow despite FWP’s decision to issue 150 more elk “B” licenses so hunters could shoot cow elk. A damage hunt that followed the regular season only reduced the herd by about 50 elk.

North of the Missouri River in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, a stable population of 1,950 elk were counted in HDs 621 and 622, while 646 elk were observed in HDs 631 and 632, up about 45 percent from the last count.

The elk cow-calf ratio in HDs 621 and 622 was 37 calves per 100 cows, and the bull-cow ratio was 51 bulls to 100 cows. In HDs 631 and 632, this year’s cow-calf ratio was estimated at 52 calves per 100 cows, and the bull-cow ratio was 45 bulls per 100 cows.

The elk data should be considered conservative since not all elk on the ground can be spotted during the flights, according to Mark Sullivan, Region 6 wildlife manager. Counting the elk is never easy, especially since hundreds of the animals often wander across hunting district boundaries.

Other big game

Mule deer observations were also tracked during the elk surveys in the Missouri River Breaks hunting districts, showing a population rebound. More than 900 mule deer were counted in HDs 631 and 632 with 1,118 mule deer observed in HDs 621 and 622. That compares to 551 mule deer observed during the 2012 survey in those districts.

Bighorn sheep numbers were also up, hitting a record high in HD 622 from Mickey and Brandon Buttes to the Bone Trail area east of Timber Creek. Nearly 300 sheep were counted, compared to 218 sheep in 2012.

Ninety-eight rams were counted, with the ram-ewe ratio at 70 rams per 100 ewes. In 2012, 78 rams were observed, which put the ratio at 85 rams per 100 ewes.

Lamb ratios have also stayed relatively high, with 64 lambs observed this year. This year’s lamb-ewe ratio was 47 lambs per 100 ewes. Sullivan said that compared to a 51 to 100 lamb-to-ewe ratio in 2012, and a long-term average of 42 lambs per 100 ewes.

Nearly all of the increase in sheep numbers in recent years is occurring in the Larb Hills and Ironstake Ridge portions of the habitat, with overall numbers there increasing 55 percent between 2012 and 2014.

In the Mickey and Brandon Butte areas, sheep numbers have been stagnant to decreasing since 2006. Sullivan said the decrease could be attributed to past over-utilization of the habitat on the relatively small range as well as predation.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.