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Elk populations in southeast Montana have doubled in the past nine years, according to recent surveys, presenting a challenge to state wildlife officials worried that continued growth will wear out the big ungulates’ welcome on private lands as well as degrade the habitat for mule deer and livestock.

Between December 2012 and March 2013, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologist Dean Waltee aerially surveyed 3,300 square miles of elk habitat in hunting districts 704 and 705, which borders Wyoming to the south and North Dakota to the east.

Data collected showed nearly 1,500 elk present; more than double the 2004 estimate of 600 for the same area. Preliminary survey efforts showed a minimum of 300 additional elk in HD 702 near Colstrip.

“Based on sportsman and landowner interest in maintaining current populations combined with minimal game damage complaints from private landowners, I feel we have found a healthy balance between optimizing recreational opportunity and minimizing local impacts,” Waltee said. “However, I have concerns going forward about allowing population growth to continue as it has and feel we are rapidly moving toward a point where growth could get away from us. If elk populations continue to increase at the present rate, there will be 4,000 elk in HDs 704 and 705 a decade from now. That many elk would cause more conflict than enjoyment. Overpopulated elk would lead to poor landowner tolerance and could degrade habitat, leading to mule deer population declines. Neither sounds ideal to me.”

FWP uses antlerless quotas to manage populations. Annual cow harvest across HDs 704 and 705 is increasing and has averaged 112 over the past five years. However, to curb continued population growth about 160 cow elk need to be harvested annually.

“If the population exceeds or even approaches 4,000 individuals, it will become difficult to achieve sufficient harvest to manage population growth,” he said. “Because the increase in cow harvest necessary to curb growth is currently minimal, now is the time to act. Ten to 15 years from now will be too late.”

FWP will be looking to increase antlerless harvest opportunities on Forest Service lands in Region 7 — namely the Ashland area — and is encouraging private landowners to allow hunter access to harvest cow elk.

Currently a permit is required to shoot antlered elk or antlerless elk on forest lands in HDs 704 and 705. A general elk license is all that’s needed to shoot an antlerless elk on private, state or Bureau of Land Management lands outside of forest boundaries.

Because deer and not cow elk hunting attracts most hunters to southeast Montana, Waltee said the key to successful elk population management will be allowing access to hunters targeting deer but who will also harvest cow elk.

One adult elk equals 0.6 Animal Unit Months. This means that a single elk will consume three times the forage of a mule deer, which equal 0.2 AUM, and about 60 percent of the forage required for a cow-calf pair.

“Wildlife managers and enthusiasts need to recognize the impacts elk have on folks trying to balance wildlife populations with making a living off of the land they manage,” Waltee said.

Those interested in learning more about survey efforts or findings can call Waltee at 406-436-2327 or email dwaltee@mt.gov.

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