Elk numbers dip; are wolves culprits?
By MICHAEL BABCOCK • Tribune Outdoor Editor
Researchers at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks have proposed a study of elk survival and recruitment in the Bitterroot Valley that could go a long way toward settling the debate over the impact that wolves have on elk.
“It sure has applicability toward that,” said Craig Jourdonnais, an FWP wildlife biologist in the Bitterroot, who proposed the study after two years of serious declines in the number of elk calves recruited into herds in the East and West Forks of the Bitterroot River.
“Elk cow/calf ratios have declined throughout the Bitterroot Valley since 2004,” Jourdonnais said. “MFWP recorded a valley-wide historic low in elk calf recruitment in 2009. Steady declines in the West Fork — Hunting District 250 — have left that population 63 percent below objective and recruitment rates of only 11 calves per 100 cows.”
Jourdonnais said two consecutive years of low calf recruitment — those calves that made it through their first winter and their early vulnerability to predators — prompted a grassroots call for the research.
Valley-wide, those late calves have numbered 12 to 15 calves per hundred cows. Ideally they would be at about 35 calves per hundred cows.
“It really came on fairly quickly and we have a lot of questions,” he said. “That is what this whole research is geared to. These things started coming together. We had support here. We ran the research proposal through the agency and competed statewide and came out among the top three. It has the blessing of the agency,” Jourdonnais said.
Whether or not wolves are to blame will be shown by the the study. Other predators such as black bears, grizzly bears and mountain lions, and factors such as habitat and cow elk health, will be part of the study as well.
“There are a lot of opinions about the relationship between elk and wolves and that is all they are,” Jourdonnais said. “We want to put some data behind it, but from gut level and our experience in the Gallatin and the Madison, it would not surprise me at all to see wolves are large part of what is going on.”
While the study might not approach the eight-year study of ungulates and prey done by Ken Hamlin from 2000 to 2009 or the 10-year study of mountain lions conducted by Rick DeSimone in the Ovando-Clearwater area, the Bitterroot study would be significant.
“It is a big enough issue that it has an internal research biologist assigned to it, so that puts it in a different category as far as commitment goes,” said Justin Gude, head of wildlife research for Fish, Wildlife & Parks in Helena. “We have only four research biologists and so it is big enough to get someone assigned to it.”
The Hamlin study showed that grizzly bears took about half the elk calves lost to predation and researchers consider that significant.
“What caused the piano to fall was adding the wolf. The wolves kicked in on the calves that remained,” Jourdonnais said. “We found 80 percent of what they killed was elk and of those elk 85 percent were calves. It is a one-two punch and they were experiencing similar low calf recruitment to what we are in the Bitterroot.”
Hamlin, a recently retired FWP wildlife biologist, conducted the Yellowstone area research beginning in 2000. His final report was published in 2009 and remains available on line at www.fwp.mt.gov.
That study and a study in the early 1980s of wolves and ungulates in the North Fork of the Flathead both had factors that the Bitterroot study does not. In the North Fork study, the principle prey was whitetail deer. In each study, there also was the factor of a nearby national park where no hunting is allowed, which means a management tool is not available.
Montana adopted a wolf hunting season last year and recently bumped up the quota of wolves available to hunters to 184. But the wolf hunt is under court challenge.
“The Bitterroot offers a real working landscape. We don’t have areas that are off limits to hunting. It is full of people trying to live, work and play,” he said. “We have plenty of mule deer, whitetails and elk and plenty of predators. You could at least make comparisons to all of western Montana and northcentral Montana.”
‘The idea for the Bitterroot study came out of discussions among Jourdonnais, FWP wildlife managers Mike Thompson, Kelly Proffitt, Gude and Mark Hebblewhite at the University of Montana.
“There were a lot of folks in the Bitterroot who were concerned,” Gude said. “Craig and Mike Thompson were responding to their concerns when they came to Kelly and me; we all worked together to come up with what the study should look like.
Jourdonnais said the issue is not just wolves but the question is, which predators a responsible for the mortality.
“We got plenty of predators here: We are trying to find out when an elk calf dies, what is it dying from. Predation could be a huge part of it but also the elk’s maternal body condition has influence.
“There are a lot of subdivisions on the elk winter range, there is weed infestations and there were some huge wildfires in the last few years. We want to be sure we are looking at things that could impact calf recruitment — but the health of the adult cow elk and predation are huge.”
The three-year study will compare the East Fork (HD 270) and West Fork (HD 250) elk herds. The East Fork area is more open habitat where agricultural activity has limited the number of wolves. The West Fork area is primarily forested habitat and the lack of agricultural activity and proximity to Idaho wilderness areas results in a higher density of wolves.
Researchers plan to capture and radio-collar 45 adult female elk in February 2011. Body condition and pregnancy rates of captured animals will be evaluated. Radio-location data will provide information regarding movement patterns of elk, location of calving areas, and interchange with adjacent herds.
Beginning in spring 2011 or 2012, they plan to capture and radio-collar 60 elk calves and monitor calf survival for 1 year. Daily flights will be conducted to monitor calf survival and mortalities will be investigated to determine cause of death.
Researchers also will capture and radio-collar wolves in the West Fork area with the intent of targeting packs that are presently unmarked.
“This kind of research is not cheap. We are trying to raise $150,000 to get the first phase off ground. The agency is stepping forward with $50,000 to $70,000 of its own,” Jourdonnais said.
“The Montana Bowhunters Association has come on board. We have cast a wide net as far as fundraiser. We have to raise money to get this done,” Jourdonnais said. “Ravalli Fish and Wildlife Association has stepped up and private landowners have expressed an interest in assisting. It is going to be a community effort.”
The Montana Bowhunters Association sent a written request to its members asking them to help support the research.
“The driving force behind this study is science over opinion,” the MBA said in a note to members. “The results of this study could potentiallyhave a profound impact of the future direction of the elkmanagement and wolf managementas well as the court. The study will allowFWP to set predator quotas based on science to help achieve elk objectives for the entire state not just the Bitterroot.
Is there hope?
Jourdonnais is guarded when it comes to recovery of the herds.
Because the number of elk has fallen below projected numbers in those elk management districts in the Bitterroot, the statewide elk management plan calls for cutting back on the number of elk taken by hunters.
“Once we removed the antlerless hunting opportunity and once these elk reach yearling to adult age the mortality is much less than when a calf. We have a core group of adult cows and we have scaled hunting back so far that it is not significant biologically. We are looking at four or five years where we can hang on. Four or five years out, if we don’t get a bump in calf recruitment, it would be a precipitous drop off.”
The proposal said, “We are currently working to gather funding for this study from MFWP, natural resource agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service, and private organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The initiation, scope, and duration of this work are dependent upon our ability to secure funding and future management needs. Foundations exist through the University of Montana and Fish, Wildlife & Parks to facilitate financial donations from private sources.”
A study by FWP economist Rob Brooks showed that the economic value of big game hunting contributed $11.3 million to the Ravalli County economy in 2005.
“That is a big deal,” Jourdonnais said.