The past winter’s lingering low-level snowpack and cold was hard on yearling elk in the Bitterroot Valley.
On average, the ratio between cows and calves counted in this spring’s annual elk monitoring flight dropped from 24 calves per 100 cows last year to 18 calves this year.
“We usually like to see that number closer to 25. When you start dropping into the teens, that’s not so good," said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Bitterroot-based biologist Rebecca Mowry.
And the damage to the herd might not stop there.
Mowry said that since the spring green-up arrived late, pregnant cows could end up delivering underweight calves.
“Research shows those lighter-weight calves have a lower chance of survival,” Mowry said. “We could end up seeing two years of a low cow-calf ratio.”
That, in turn, could lead to a drop in the number of bull elk that are the focus of most hunters.
Overall elk numbers were down from last year’s count, but still above the objectives set in the state elk management plan.
Mowry counted 7,851 elk in the five hunting districts that surround the valley as well as several herds that live along the river bottom. Last year, she tallied 8,585.
The state elk plan objective for the five hunting districts in the Bitterroot Valley is 7,500.
In the East Fork of the Bitterroot — the valley’s most popular hunting area — Mowry counted 4,069 elk, including 423 bulls. While last year’s count was higher at 4,779, this spring’s numbers were still over the objective of 3,800.
“Given the rough winter, the count was much higher than I expected,” Mowry said.
The biologist and pilot made five flights over the HD 270 in three days in an attempt to avoid the possibility of double counting elk. Even with that extra effort, several areas that typically hold bull elk in the spring were missed in this year’s survey.
“I am highly confidence in the overall count, minus the bulls I know we missed,” she said.
Two of the five hunting districts on the east side of the valley — HD 261 and HD 204 — are both above objectives.
In HD 204 on the north end of the Sapphire Mountains, Mowry counted 891 elk. The objective for that area is 600. That district also had the highest number of bull-cow ratio on the Bitterroot. Mowry spotted 205 bulls in the district, which equates to 39 bulls for every 100 cows.
In HD 261, which includes the middle portion of the Sapphire Mountains, Mowry tallied 857 elk in an area where the objective is 700.
The only hunting district that fell short of the state elk plan objective was HD 250 in the West Fork of the Bitterroot, where Mowry counted 901 elk, including 170 bulls. The objective is 1,400, but Mowry thinks that number may have to be adjusted.
Some of the elk that spend the summer and fall in the West Fork winter in Idaho. That fact was documented during the recent elk study that focused on calf mortality.
After finding elk had already gone back into the timber during one flight of the spring’s survey in the Hughes Creek drainage, Mowry and her pilot popped over the mountains into Idaho where they found elk that may soon move back into Montana.
“It was beautifully greened up and there were lots of elk hanging out in the North Fork of the Salmon: probably 200 to 300 at least,” Mowry said. “In years with less snow, there’s a good chance we could find these elk already in the West Fork during the annual surveys — but not this year, as the snow at the divide was still pretty deep.”
Since elk move back and forth between Montana and Idaho in the West Fork, Mowry said the state may need to take another look at the objective for that area to see if it’s appropriate.
On the west side of the valley, Mowry spotted 1,010 elk in HD 240. She thinks she may have missed a few between Trapper Creek and Chaffin Creek after running out of daylight during an evening flight.
Mowry also spotted four different elk herds on the valley floor.
She counted 88 south of Stevensville near Bell Crossing.
Closer to Hamilton, Mowry found two different herds in places where there have normally been one. One was near Murdoch’s Ranch and Home Supply, where she has normally spotted elk before. The other was closer to Angler’s Roost. Both herds had about 40 elk.
Mowry guesses that the Angler’s Roost group might have moved down from the west side. The Murdochs herd has been living in the river bottom year around and sometimes crosses the highway on the south of side of Hamilton near the Conoco gas station.
Mowry also found a herd of about 35 elk in the Conner area this year. That herd is often spotted west of the West Fork Road around the White Fishing Access Site.
A wet and cool March pushed back this year’s annual monitoring flight a couple weeks. Mowry has to wait until the grass begins to green up before launching the intensive effort.
“Usually the lower elevations start to green up in late March,” she said. “This year we started on April 11. The weather delayed us two to three weeks.”