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Elk population

Elk numbers have fallen so low in the upper Gallatin River drainage that the state is proposing a permit-only season next year for at most 500 hunters.

The hunters aren’t to blame for the reduced number of elk. Two wolf packs and grizzly bears are responsible for the decline, according to Julie Cunningham, a wildlife biologist in the Bozeman office of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

A meeting is being held Thursday in Bozeman to outline the problem and permit changes, as well as to hear the public’s suggestions.

“We need to discuss the nature of hunting in a resource that’s dwindling,” Cunningham said.

Hunting District 310 is about 219 square miles of rugged mountains and drainages southwest of Bozeman and northwest of Yellowstone National Park. The district is bordered by the Madison Range to the west and the Gallatin Range to the east. Its northern boundary extends to the east of the resort community of Big Sky.

Two packs hunt in the area. The Hayden pack had six wolves and the Cougar Two had 10 at the end of 2008. Grizzly bears, which were returned to the endangered species list in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem this year, also inhabit the territory, as do black bears and mountain lions.

Elk are the main food source for wolves in the region, and grizzly bears are the primary predators of elk calves. But it wasn’t until wolves arrived in the region in significant numbers that FWP saw the dramatic decline in elk numbers.

 

Quick fall

 

As recently as 2005, 1,500 elk were counted in the hunting district. This year, only 200 were found.

“Our population objective is to manage within 20 percent of 1,500 wintering elk,” Cunningham said. “In recent years, we’re as far as 85 percent below that objective.”

In hopes of counteracting the elk population’s downturn, FWP eliminated late hunts in the district in 2004 and in 2007 went to a permit-only system for bulls, although the number of permits was not capped. Still, the elk population has declined by about 30 percent annually.

Hunters aren’t killing many elk — only about 60 in 2008. Instead, Cunningham said it is the area’s four-legged hunters that have taken a toll on the elk herd.

According to her research, in 2006 there were 23 wolves to every 1,000 elk in Hunting District 310. That compares to nine wolves to every 1,000 elk on the Northern Yellowstone Range in nearby Yellowstone Park. Grizzly bears numbered 57 to every 1,000 elk in HD 310, compared to nine per 1,000 on the Northern Range.

“Those ratios are really key when we expect to see wolf influence on elk distribution,” Cunningham said. “We ex-pect to see it at 10 per 1,000.”

 

Other causes?

 

She added that there are no habitat factors that would explain the decline in elk. Recreational use of the drainage by snowmobilers has been blamed by some for fewer wintering elk, but Cunningham said she’s not pointing any fingers.

Some elk, feeling too crowded by predators and people, simply relocated to a less-stressful environment in the Madison Valley, where large swaths of private land provide a safe haven but also keep hunters at bay. Without public hunting, wildlife managers can’t control population densities.

The fact that HD 310 contains good winter elk habitat on public land accessible to hunters yet isn’t being used to its fullest bothers Kurt Alt, Region 3 wildlife manager for FWP.

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“Why would we not put an effort into restoring elk on public land?” Alt said.

Cunningham said FWP is seeing similar declines in elk caused by predators in portions of the Bitterroot and Clarks Fork valleys. Any formula that could revive elk in HD 310 might be duplicated in other hunting districts, she added.

 

Predator dilemma

 

One obvious way to revive the elk herd would be to thin the number of predators. Although Montana held its first wolf hunting season this fall, only two of the 72 killed were taken in the area of HD 310. Montana does not have a season for grizzly bears, although hunters pursuing other game account for the majority of grizzly deaths in the Greater Yellowstone Area.

But whether Montana will have a wolf hunting season next year is in doubt. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy is considering if the animals should be relisted as an endangered species. He will make a ruling on the lawsuit next year.

Mike Leahy, Rocky Mountain region director of Defenders of Wildlife, said targeting wolves to boost the elk population would not be good conservation and should not be the role of government. He also noted that statewide, elk are doing well. In 2007, the state estimated the elk population at more than 123,500. The state’s wolf population is estimated at 500.

“You have some isolated situations like this one, but if you look at elk as a whole, they’re doing great,” Leahy said.

Defenders is one of several environmental groups challenging the delisting of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies. Leahy said the group believes this fall’s wolf hunts in Montana and Idaho were premature and not designed to sustain the survival of wolves.

Contact Brett French at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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