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Elk trends in Hunting District 313, the southern end of Paradise Valley, are stable to improving.

Managing the Northern Yellowstone elk herd, one of the most popular in the world, is no easy task.

Here’s the dilemma: Elk calf survival is good — 21 calves per 100 cows — so the herd is stable or growing slightly, according to a March interagency survey. That’s been a goal since the herd’s numbers plummeted, after the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone in 1995, from about 19,000 to a more stable 5,000 the last three years.

Large bull elk numbers are up a bit this year — 7.3 brow-tined bulls per 100 cows across the entire survey area — reversing a downward trend, but the number remains low in the Montana section of the survey where the animals can be hunted — 3.8 brow-tined bulls to 100 cows while inside Yellowstone it is much higher at 16.2 bulls.

Both numbers are below long-term averages, which are 11.1 in Montana and 30.5 in Yellowstone. These are the most popular animals for hunters seeking a trophy and a vital resource for hunting outfitters in the Gardiner Basin like Warren and Susan Johnson of Hell’s A Roarin’ Outfitters in Jardine.

The Johnsons have been outspoken opponents to FWP’s new regulations, implemented last season, to try and reduce the bull harvest. To that end, the general rifle season for hunters in Hunting District 313 was shortened by two weeks. Only 50 permits were issued that allowed bull hunting throughout the entire rifle season. The season can also be closed on an emergency basis if elk are vulnerable during an early migration.

About 93 percent of the harvest in 2015 was brow-tined bulls, numbers from last season are not yet available. That’s in part due to regulations that limit cow elk harvest as FWP has tried to grow the herd from a historic population low of about 2,700 animals counted in the late 1990s.

"With the brow-tined bull count at 7.3 in the park and 3.8 in Montana, the average in the herd is over five bulls per 100 cows!” Susan Johnson wrote in an email. “Much, much better than almost every other hunting district in Montana! I'm not sure why the FWP has chosen this district to close the hunting. They keep referring to 10 bulls per 100 cows in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but that was only because, with the late hunt, we were killing thousands of cows every winter. We will never ever have that number again, unless they do a cow depredation hunt again. It is a false number in this false narrative!”

Karen Loveless, a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist based in Livingston who keeps tabs on the herd and compiled the classification survey results, wrote that, “Modelling of population and harvest trends predicted that it will take at least five years with the current season structure in place to achieve the objective of recovering brow-tined bull ratios to within 20 percent of the long-term average, assuming calf and yearling bull recruitment remain near or above average.”

The possibility that the hunting restrictions could be in place for five years angered Susan Johnson.

“This is the first I heard the FWP are looking at a five year closure!” she wrote. “We are very disturbed by this!"

To complicate matters, more elk than ever are migrating out of Yellowstone and into southwest Montana’s Paradise Valley — 89 percent of the herd moved this winter. Since many of the elk have been exposed to brucellosis, a disease that can cause cattle to abort their calves and results in a rancher’s entire herd being quarantined, their intermingling with livestock is a concern.

“A lot of them crossed north of 6 Mile Creek this winter, about 800 elk,” Loveless said. “That’s a lot. We haven’t had numbers like that since we had 19,000 elk.”

So although elk numbers are stable after 10 years of almost steady decline, FWP is in a bit of a dilemma. The state’s population objective for the herd is 3,000 to 5,000 animals.

“We’re right up against our population objective in Montana,” Loveless said. “If they continue to migrate like now and the herd grows, we’re going to have a problem.

“I’d love to see the herd grow inside the park.”

Why more elk are migrating out of the park in winter could be attributed to several factors: harsher winters inside Yellowstone, more bison competing for resources as that herd has grown, more predators in the park as grizzly numbers have climbed and possibly a behavorial change among the elk who feel safer in winter by migrating out of Yellowstone. Years ago, more elk may have stayed in Yellowstone because Montana allowed a late season cow elk hunt — referred to by some as “the firing line” — which would have conditioned elk to avoid the same areas that they are now migrating through.

Despite more elk leaving the park percentage-wise, Loveless said she had fewer problems this winter with elk invading haystacks and creating other problems on private land.

“They backed off after being problematic early on,” she said. “A lot of the elk stayed on the (Dome Mountain Wildlife Management Area) — there were over 3,000 elk there this year.”

FWP uses the March count to estimate the overall sex and age structure of the elk herd.

“These estimates are used to obtain an index of winter calf survival and recruitment as well as adult and yearling bulls in the population,” Loveless wrote in her report.

A helicopter was used to count the animals across the herd’s entire winter range, from 6-mile Creek in the south end of the Paradise Valley in Montana to the Soda Butte/Cache Creek area in Yellowstone National Park.

The Northern Yellowstone Cooperative Wildlife Working Group has conducted these classifications since 1986. The group is comprised of resource managers and biologists from FWP, Yellowstone National Park, the Custer Gallatin National Forest and the Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.