The story of elk in the Bitterroot Valley this spring is both good and bad.
In nearly every corner except one, the valley’s elk herd is showing signs of being on the rebound.
In the West Fork, the news remains bleak.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park Bitterroot biologist Craig Jourdonnais spent over a 100 hours in the air counting elk though most of April.
He found 6,238 elk this year, which is about 6 percent less than what he saw the year before. Jourdonnais attributes most of that drop to the fact there wasn’t as much snow this spring as the year past to keep elk on their winter ranges where they are easier to find.
The good news was that in everyplace other than the West Fork, the number of calves with cows was up from last year. Valley wide, the number averaged out at 23 calves per 100 cows.
“If we could get into that 30 to 35 range, it would heal a lot of what’s ailing our elk herd in the upper Bitterroot,” Jourdonnais said.
The best calf production he saw was among the elk that were living in the river bottoms on mostly private lands. On average, every other cow had a calf at its side.
“They’re living in the most productive habitat and out of the reach of teeth,” Jourdonnais said. “It shows us what elk in the Bitterroot can do if they have the optimum situation.”
The number of elk that live in the river bottom continues to grow, including a new herd of 30 that moved in just south of Lolo this year. In total, Jourdonnais counted in the river bottom this spring.
“That’s the most I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Jourdonnais said. His first survey was in 2008.
On the west side of the valley between Lolo and Tin Cup near Darby, Jourdonnais counted 29 calves per 100 cows.
Most encouraging was the 24 calves per 100 cows he counted in the East Fork of the Bitterroot.
The state placed restrictions on cow harvest last year and required hunters to get a permit to hunt bulls this upcoming season to ease pressure on that herd after its numbers appeared to be struggling. That, combined with additional pressure on predators, is making a difference, Jourdonnais said.
“We could get out of these restrictive seasons pretty quick in HD 270 if we can continue this trend for a couple of years,” he said.
The number of bull elk spotted by Jourdonnais also increased this spring the East Fork. After two consecutive years of bull numbers dropping below 10 per 100 cows, the biologist found 12 this year.
The trends weren’t so favorable in the West Fork.
In the lower portion of that hunting district, Jourdonnais found good numbers of calves, but that fell apart as soon as he went very far upstream.
“Calf numbers were single digit to low teens up there,” he said. “This is the fourth age class that we’ve essentially lost. While cow elk can remain productive throughout their lives, they do get less productive the older they get.”
One average, cow elk sampled in the West Fork were six years old. In the East Fork, they are half that age.
“Predation is an obvious influence and perhaps there are some habitat issues in play that we haven’t gotten into the heart of,” he said. “Those habitat issues have been in play for awhile and they haven’t changed. The increase in the lion population and wolf establishment combined with things that we haven’t detected yet may be making this herd not as productive as others.”
The three year research project should help flesh out some of those answers, he said.
“The whole herd in the West fork is continuing to age and isn’t being replaced by younger elk,” Jourdonnais said. “We’re at a place that we’re going to crash, if we can’t get it turned around.”
Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or email@example.com.