Studying lions: Researchers to begin collecting DNA samples in Bitterroot Valley

After placing an electronic collar around the neck of a cow elk, biologists work to take other samples before the animal awakens during a recent elk capturing operation in the southern Bitterroot Valley. Biologists will begin fanning out across the region to begin gathering information about mountain lions as part of three year study.

Courtesy of Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Elk numbers are on the rise in the Bitterroot.

It’s been a while since anyone could say those words.

This year’s aerial spring count found 7,373 elk in the five hunting districts that encircle the Bitterroot Valley.

It was the fourth highest number of elk spotted by biologists in the 48-year history of the annual spring survey.

Last year, the survey found 6,238 elk.

“We’ve had a pulse this year,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional wildlife manager Mike Thompson. “It’s a hopeful sign.”

Most of that increase came as a result of better elk calf survival, especially in the southern reaches of the Bitterroot Valley.

“We’ve seen that kind of variation in elk populations before,” Thompson said. “You achieve that kind of bump in population numbers with higher calf production and survival.”

State wildlife managers have been concerned about elk numbers in the Bitterroot since 2009 when elk calf survival dropped by about half.

At its worst, only 14 calves per 100 cows survived through their first year in a valleywide average. In the West Fork of the Bitterroot, the number dropped to 9 in 2009.

This year, biologists counted 25 calves per 100 cows in the valleywide average. That was the highest number they’ve seen since 2008.

In the hard hit West Fork, elk calf numbers rebounded to 33 per 100 cows.

Bull numbers have remained relatively static in the region since 2008, at about 11 per 100 cows.

“It’s OK biologically,” Thompson said. “There are enough bulls to take care of the breeding, but it’s not really good.”

Historically, Thompson said bull elk numbers were between the high teens all the way up to 30 per 100 cows.

“The reason the bull numbers are low is the problem with low recruitment over the past years,” he said. “If calves don’t survive, bull elk numbers won’t grow.”

Thompson said it’s important that people understand that while the drop in calf survival wasn’t tied to hunting, sportsmen did agree early on to reduce their harvest in the districts hard hit by the decline.

“Those cow/calf ratios went to low levels that we had never seen before,” he said. “It was a trigger. We made a conscious decision after that to really restrict hunting because there was not enough surplus to support it. We wanted to keep as many maternal cows on the ground as we could.”

State wildlife officials have also increased harvest levels on bears, wolves and mountain lions in an effort to reduce predation on vulnerable elk calves in the Bitterroot.

Thompson said the plan calls for continuing that strategy in an effort to continue building the area’s elk herd.

“At first blush, we’re seeing the elk population can respond,” he said. “We want to conserve that pulse just in case we end up with a bad summer or winter before we take another jump forward.”

“We do all of this with the goal to try to reintroduce more hunting back into the Bitterroot eventually,” Thompson said. “We want to get it back to the way that it used to be so we can hunt in a sustainable fashion that we can count on year after year.”

Thompson will share this information and more at an upcoming “Elk Summit” hosted by the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association at the Bitterroot River Inn on Tuesday, May 21 at 6:30 p.m.

“It’s definitely encouraging for all of us to see this uptick,” said the association’s Tony Jones. “We’re definitely on an upward trend in both bull numbers and cow/calf ratios.”

The association hosted a similar program last year to provide sportsmen with some valuable information on elk population trends and updates on ongoing wildlife studies in the Bitterroot.

“Last time we had a great turnout,” Jones said. “We think it’s great to be able to provide the general public with information about the latest numbers and how the flights are done.”

The latest information gathered by two large studies looking at the area’s elk and mountain lion populations should be interesting to many who attend.

“The beauty of it is that we have these two in-depth studies going on at the same time right here in the Bitterroot,” Jones said. “Both studies are mostly funded by private dollars. We’re really fortunate to see that happen here.”

Hunters have been willing to put their money where it’s needed and give up the opportunity to hunt in order to protect the valley’s elk herd, he said.

“Elk in the Bitterroot are a pretty darn important thing,” Jones said. “Hunters have given up a lot of opportunity. We think it’s important for them to see how these survey flights are done.”

“We hope they will leave that night with a better understanding of how this whole process works,” he said.

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.