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Sapphire Elk Study

A helicopter net gunning crew capture an elk last December in the northern reaches of the Sapphire Mountain Range. The elk was one of 80 that will be tracked in a study looking to understand how hunting pressure impacts the way elk use the landscape.

The net gunners are scheduled to return soon to the northern reaches of the Sapphire Mountains.

Researchers hope they’ll be able to capture another 16 elk that will be fitted with GPS collars as part of a second phase of a research project that’s already provided some valuable insight into lives of Bitterroot wapiti.

The first round began in 2014 with a similar helicopter-based elk capture operation that put GPS collars on elk from northern end of the Sapphire Mountains in the Miller Creek area south to the Burnt Fork Ranch east of Stevensville. The elk are captured with nets fired from the helicopters.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Bitterroot-based biologist Rebecca Mowry said the initial study focused on the migratory patterns of the elk herds and how the nutrition of different types of forage impacted those patterns, including enticing some animals to set up camp on irrigated farmland.

University of Montana graduate student Kristin Barker’s thesis on the first study detailed a number of interesting findings, including that recently burned forests provided quality forage that was equivalent to irrigated agriculture.

“Overall, my work reveals that irrigated agriculture provides a strong nutritional incentive for elk to forego seasonal migration, but this effect on migratory behavior can be mitigated by the predictable presence of high-quality forage outside agricultural areas,” Barker wrote.

Outside of irrigated ag lands, upland vegetative communities in earlier seral stages and with a lower tree canopy typically produced the best forage for elk.

“Land management practices that maintain or improve forage quality on summer ranges of migrant (elk) could therefore increase both the likelihood of migration and nutritional benefits of migratory behaviors … fire management or timber management (e.g., revegetation, logging, thinning or mechanical treatments) may help improve forage on migratory summer ranges,” she wrote.

The first study followed 45 adult female elk with GPS collars that provided a location every two hours. Researchers also gathered forage snippings from areas used by elk that were analyzed for their nutritional value.

Mowry said the information gleaned from the initial study offered insights on what steps need to occur to encourage elk to migrate back onto traditional summer ranges rather than remaining on the valley floor where they can damage croplands.

“It creates a challenge for landowners when elk take up residence on their farmlands,” Mowry said.

The second study will focus on how hunting pressure affects elk.

The plan is to collar 40 cows and 40 bulls with GPS collars that will provide a location hourly over a two-year period.

In the southern portion of the study in Hunting District 204, travel management changes implemented by the Bitterroot National Forest have cut down on the amount of four-wheeled access into area, which should increase elk security on public lands, Mowry said.

Farther to the north, the study areas includes the MPG Ranch, which has offered some additional opportunity to harvest cow elk over the last few years.

“The elk population in the hunting district is currently over objective,” Mowry said. “Some of the surrounding landowners are allowing more hunting.”

Some changes in the hunting regulations also provided more opportunity on private lands.

“We hope to learn how these changes are impacting cow and bull elk in the area and how it’s affecting their use of the landscape,” Mowry said.

The study will work with another University of Montana graduate student, Mike Forzley.

“All of these elk will be available to hunters next fall,” Mowry said. “If a hunter does harvest an elk with a collar, it’s really important that we get those back.”

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Associate Editor

Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.