Despite challenges created by the closure of the Hamilton airport and adjusting to a new pilot in accomplishing the spring’s annual elk survey, a biologist found elk numbers in the Bitterroot remained close to the same as two years ago.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Rebecca Mowry and others counted 7,631 elk this spring during the annual spring survey.
“Everything I saw wasn’t either good or bad,” Mowry said. “It was just kind of average.”
The overall numbers were a little bit down from the last time Mowry was able to do a spring survey in 2019. Last year’s count from the air was canceled due to the pandemic.
In 2019, Mowry counted 7,851 elk in the five districts that surround the valley as well as several herds that live along the river bottom. The year before that was the highest on record at 8,585.
Two years ago, the count showed the ratio between cows and calves had dropped down to 18 calves per 100 cows after a lingering snowpack and late spring green-up. This year that number rebounded to closer to 25 calves per 100 cows, which is nearer to average.
As usual, the largest elk herd was found in Hunting District 270 in the East Fork of the Bitterroot. This year’s count of 4,052 nearly mirrored what Mowry saw in 2019.
An early green-up this year allowed Mowry to survey the area two weeks earlier than normal, which worked well for spotting antlerless elk. Bulls were more challenging to find in the East Fork. The biologist saw 12 bulls for every 100 cows, but the cow/calf ratio was up slightly, averaging 28 calves per 100 cows.
Mowry will propose dropping B-licenses from 200 to 150 in the West Bitterroot (HD 240) after seeing herd sizes drop in that district.
“It is kind of what we want to see in that district,” Mowry said. “Every herd size was down slightly. In the past, there’s been a lot of game damage in that district. To be on the safe side, I think we’ll ask to drop the quota a little bit.”
The West Bitterroot district had a total of 923 elk, with 13 bulls and 25 calves per 100 bulls. In 2019, Mowry counted 1,010 elk.
Across the valley in the HD 204 in the North Sapphires, numbers were down slightly to 855, with 22 bulls and 23 calves per 100 cows. That count was completed by former FWP biologist Craig Jourdonnais. In 2019, Mowry counted 891 in the district.
In the West Fork of the Bitterroot (HD 250), the numbers of elk Mowry counted dropped to 806 from the 901 she saw in 2019. She wasn’t able to complete the Nez Perce/Watchtower area, which typically has about 100 elk, which would put that number closer to average.
The numbers of bull elk remained strong at 21 per 100 cows in the area that requires hunters to obtain one of a limited number of permits to hunt there.
The bull ratio was a tiny bit better in the HD 261 in the East Bitterroot at 22 bulls per 100 cows. The overall number of elk Mowry counted was about the same as last time at 837.
The numbers of elk living on the valley floor is about half of its height of 304 in 2017. This year Mowry saw 158 elk on the valley floor.
Mowry completed gathering data from an experimental mule deer tag that allowed hunters to harvest any deer with three points or fewer on one side this past season. The area is a coveted trophy mule deer area that offers a limited number of buck tags each year.
The idea behind the new tag was to try to cull the herd of older buck deer that trophy hunters would likely pass on. Since buck deer tend to roam further than does, Mowry said managing buck numbers can help to decrease the potential of the spread of chronic wasting disease.
“A dense population of buck deer can create a tender box for CWD,” she said. “We wanted to see if we could harvest a few more bucks and not impact the trophy quality of the area.”
There were 15 of the experimental tags offered last hunting season. The average age of bucks harvested with the tags was six years, which corresponded with the average age of deer taken by hunters with the regular tag.