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Bitterroot Valley elk numbers increase in annual count

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Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Craig Jourdonnais spotted around 400 more elk in the Bitterroot Valley this spring than during the annual monitoring flight last year.

But he's not ready to tell anyone to start celebrating.

"It's good that we saw more elk, but this year's conditions for counting were exceptional," Jourdonnais said. "The elk were more concentrated and easier to count."

This year's count may just be a reflection of that happenstance.

"We hit green-up just right, and the elk were out in places where we could see them," Jourdonnais said. "There were only a few days where we had to hunt and dig them out of the timber. That didn't happen much."

In total, Jourdonnais counted 6,605 elk in the Bitterroot Valley. Last year, he spotted about 6,200.

With calf survival rates relatively low over the past few years, Jourdonnais said it is doubtful that elk numbers will increase dramatically in most areas of the Bitterroot.

The one exception may be the west side of the valley, where calf numbers appear to be on the increase.

"Hunting District 240 is the one area that seems to be having a legitimate upswing," Jourdonnais said. "I counted more than 30 calves per 100 cows. That's the highest recruitment rate that I've seen since I've been here."

There is a caveat, however.

The best calf/cow numbers are found in the herds hugging the river bottoms. Jourdonnais counted upward of 51 calves per 100 cows on those private lands on the valley bottoms, which helped to drive the average higher.

That's a trend Jourdonnais is noticing throughout the Bitterroot.

Elk wintering in wildland areas tend to have lower calf recruitment rates than those that spend most of their lives closer to developed areas, like the river bottoms.

Jourdonnais has seen elk change their behavior over the past few years. In the past, the animals would leave the valley bottom in the spring and summer in the mountainous areas on public lands.

"Some have just quit doing that," Jourdonnais said. "I think they are making that decision for two reasons: nutrition and predation."

In the East Fork of the Bitterroot River, Jourdonnais said, low calf recruitment for several years appears to be impacting total bull numbers in the area, especially south of Rye Creek.

For the last two years, Jourdonnais counted less than 10 bulls per 100 cows in that area.

Under the statewide elk plan, that ratio triggers consideration of changes in hunting-season packages, which could include the requirement for some type of permit system.

No changes will be made until after the public has a chance to offer input, Jourdonnais said.

The decline in mature bull numbers follows a year when good hunting conditions led to a relatively large harvest last fall. There were 269 bulls killed in HD 270.

"I'm happy the hunters had the success they did last fall, however I knew that when they really got into those mature bulls during the last 10 days of season, we would pay for it," Jourdonnais said. "You can't have that kind of success when there is low calf recruitment happening at the same time."

Calf numbers varied between the south and north portions of the hunting district. North of Rye Creek in HD 270, Jourdonnais counted 20 calves per 100 cows. On the south end, he found 13 calves per 100 cows.

"That surprised me a bit," Jourdonnais said. "It does seem like there is a more persistent presence of wolves south of Rye Creek."

Elk numbers in the West Fork appear to have stabilized.

Jourdonnais counted 785 this past year, which was up from 764 last year and 744 in 2009.

"Those variations are easily discounted by the variability in the survey," Jourdonnais said. "It does appear that eliminating any antlerless harvest there has stabilized that population for now."

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

 

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