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Give elk even a tiny safety zone during the hunting season and it can have a big effect on the animals’ ability to survive.

This may sound obvious, but areas where public hunting isn’t allowed and remote, brushy draws helped elk avoid hunters in a portion of the Missouri River Breaks and Larb Hills in northeastern Montana during the 2013 and 2014 seasons.

“We’ve got some key landowners providing a lot of sanctuary,” said Scott Thompson, newly appointed wildlife manager for Region 6 and the lead author of the study. “Working with them is key.”

The details are some of the findings of a two-year study conducted by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on 47 GPS-collared elk in hunting districts 621, 622 and 631, which are located north of the Missouri River and east of Highway 87. It was the first study of elk in the Missouri Breaks ever conducted by FWP, which worked in concert with the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

“Even if it is a small portion of the total landscape, those pieces can have a really broad influence on hunter harvest,” said Quentin Kujala, FWP Wildlife Management section chief. “That, for me, is what makes it a tough nut to crack.”

Objectives

The findings prove a point elk hunters have long struggled with: elk are incredibly skilled at avoiding hunters. In 2014, the last year for which figures are available, only 15 percent of Montana elk hunters filled their tags. That’s despite some healthy elk populations.

One chart in the study points out that the elk numbers in HDs 621, 622, 631 and 632 spiked above 4,000 head in 2006, the highest it’s ever been. Although issuing more hunting permits for the area drove elk numbers down to about 2,500 head in 2014, since 2001 elk populations have remained above the department’s objective of 1,700 to 2,000 head.

“The crux of it is working with those landowners, providing tools to try and redistribute elk,” Thompson said. “That’s the answer to a higher harvest rate.”

That means finding “common fundamental objectives” with those landowners, Kujala said. When everyone can’t agree on an objective, though, that complicates finding a solution to the problem.

Declining success

The study focused on elk habitat in southern Valley and Phillips counties, a patchwork of federal Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lands intermingled with state and private parcels.

The study’s numbers and graphs paint an interesting picture. Between 2001 and 2015 the antlerless elk hunter success rate has been declining and the cow elk harvest has dropped to its lowest level in that time frame, even though FWP liberally issued cow elk permits.

“The reason for recent declines in hunter success and harvest are unknown, but given the declines in hunter success resulting in insufficient harvest, the elk population is likely to remain over objective,” the report stated.

So if hunter harvest is the main way to draw down elk numbers and increasing the number of permits isn’t bringing populations down far enough, what’s FWP’s next move?

This year a short shoulder season will be initiated to see if it can increase the hunter harvest, Thompson said. As adopted, the late season will be offered from Dec. 15-31 for those who secure an elk B permit in HDs 620, 621, 622, 630, 631 and 632.

The application deadline for limited B Licenses is June 1. Over-the-counter and any surplus B Licenses are available for purchase beginning Aug. 8.

Accessibility

The study said that 97 percent of the elk in the Missouri River Breaks portion of the study were accessible to hunters during the archery and rifle seasons. Only 2 percent of the study area allowed no public hunter access and only 1 percent restricted hunter access.

“It’s surprising how accessible those animals were,” Thompson said. “Those elk are finding other ways to avoid hunters — they’re finding dense cover away from roads.”

In the Larb Hills, 79 percent of the elk range was accessible to hunters, 11 percent allowed no hunter access and 10 percent restricted hunter access. When pressured, Larb Hills elk were more likely to “hide behind orange paint” on private lands than the Missouri Breaks elk, Thompson said.

“We found that even relatively small geographic areas within an elk population range being managed for restricted hunter access or no hunter access may have a disproportionate effect on elk distribution and prevent effective harvest of female elk to maintain elk populations at objective levels,” the report stated.

Bowhunting effects

Another interesting finding from the study is that elk were less accessible to the hunting public in both areas during the archery season, even though pressure in terms of the number of hunters is about the same for the rifle and archery seasons. Thompson said that may be because bowhunters walk more, putting increased pressure on elk.

He also noted that archers “have the luxury of drawing a tag year after year,” giving them a better understanding of the elk movements in the areas. With rifle permits only available through drawings, those hunters may be less familiar with the terrain and where the elk are hiding, Thompson speculated. Yet it is rifle hunters who kill the most elk and the most cow elk.

Out of the elk that died during the study, the majority of them were killed by hunters, even though hunters were asked to try and avoid killing the study animals since so few collars had been distributed throughout the herds.

Of the 15 GPS-collared elk that died during the two-year study the “causes of mortality included 1 archery harvest, 8 rifle harvest, 1 illegal harvest, 2 wounding loss, 1 lion predation, and 2 unknown causes,” the report found.

From this data it was calculated that the average survival rate for the Missouri Breaks elk was 84 percent, 83 percent in the Larb Hills. These figures are similar to the survival rates for cow elk in Yellowstone National Park during a study conducted there. The difference is the Yellowstone elk are dodging wolves while the Breaks and Larb Hills elk are not.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.