The Bitterroot Valley’s elk herd appears to be on the rebound.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Bitterroot biologist Nathan Borg counted 7,373 elk during the annual spring survey that’s occurred every year for decades.
Surprisingly, that’s exactly the same number of elk that were counted last spring in the Bitterroot’s five hunting districts.
Those overall numbers only tell part of the story, though.
More importantly, Borg documented a nice bump in the number of bulls and calves in every single district.
“Overall, I’m very encouraged by the elk numbers in the Bitterroot,” Borg said. “Generally, the cow/calf and cow/bull ratios were a whole lot higher than last year.”
There was good news to report even from the West Fork of the Bitterroot, where elk have struggled over the past few years.
Last year, biologists counted a total of 985 elk in the West Fork. This year, Borg tallied 1,192 inside the old boundaries of Hunting District 250.
Even more impressive, Borg spotted 149 bulls, which amounted to 20 bulls per 100 cows. Last year, the ratio stood at 12 bulls per 100 cows in the same area.
“I saw a lot more bulls this year, but some of that might have had to do with the heavy snowpack we had this spring,” he said. “That snow could have pushed the bulls out into areas where I could see them easier.”
The cow/calf ratio dropped slightly in the West Fork this year. In 2013, biologists found 33 calves per 100 cows. This year, the number dropped to 29 calves per 100 cows.
Both of those numbers are improvements from previous years where calf numbers dropped into the low teens and below.
“We have seen a big bump in calf recruitment over the past two years in the West Fork,” Borg said.
While it may be too early to know for sure why that is, Borg said there has been a liberal harvest on mountain lions and wolves in the area.
A just-completed three-year study in the area showed that mountain lions had a large impact on calf recruitment.
The number of human hunters is also way down in the West Fork after the state eliminated cow permits and limited the remaining elk hunting opportunities to a few permits.
“Those sacrifices that hunters made appear to be starting to pay off,” Borg said. “The fear was that once calf recruitment gets low and stays there for a while, there may not be enough animals left for a rebound. We may have caught HD 250 in time.”
Borg expects the restrictions will stay in place at least through this next hunting season in the West Fork.
In the East Fork of the Bitterroot, overall numbers were kind of hard to compare between this year and last.
In 2013, biologists documented a large spike in overall elk numbers in Hunting District 270 that some believed may have been attributed to an unusual migration of some sort.
That year, they found 4,386 elk in the East Fork. This year, the number dropped back to 3,822.
The good news is Borg counted a large jump in the ratios of cow versus calves and bulls in the area.
In 2013, the bull/cow ratio stood at 9 bulls per 100 cows. This year, it jumped to 17 bulls. Likewise, the calf/cow ratio went from 23/100 last year to 34 calves per 100 cows this year in the area.
Borg generally saw increases or stability in overall numbers and cow and bull ratios in the northern three hunting districts, as well.
In HD 261 in the Sapphire Mountains, he saw about 100 more elk than the previous year and twice as many bulls. The calf/cow ratio also jumped from 24 calves per 100 cows last year to 39 calves this year.
“I think some of those bulls I saw this year would normally have been over in Rock Creek,” he said. “This year, they couldn’t make it due to the heavy snow. We didn’t see many elk in Rock Creek.
“All in all, the Bitterroot elk herd looks really good,” Borg said. “Calf recruitment is up. It seemed like every group of elk we looked at had a lot of spikes and yearling calves. It seems like the population is building.”