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The West Fork is revered in the Bitterroot. Located above the small town of Conner, it's a relatively close getaway that lies partly in the untamed Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. Hunters, campers, day-hikers and fishermen frequent it. It's attracted trophy homes at lower elevations as well as expansive ranches like the Triple Creek, which topped Travel + Leisure's list of best American hotels last year. The streams hold westslope cutthroat, brook and rainbow trout. Elk, moose and whitetail and mule deer used to graze the low-lying fields by the hundreds.
Some find this last point—the decades-long abundance of game—ironic. The Corps of Discovery, headed by Lewis and Clark, nearly died of starvation while wintering in the Bitterroot in 1805. The same herds FWP is now studying are likely related to elk brought to the Bitterroot by railcar in the 1930s as part of an elk augmentation effort statewide.
"It wasn't until probably the '90s that we were dealing with over-populations of elk," says FWP biologist Craig Jourdonnais, whose grandfather was involved in the augmentation. "The older folks remember all the work it took to get there, and I think that's part of what's driving the frustration. They don't want to go backward."
Explanations for the recent elk decline vary, among residents in the Bitterroot as well as among governmental agencies. FWP doesn't dismiss the possibility that wolves are to blame, but they've pointed to a growing list of other possibilities, mostly related to a changing landscape. The U.S. Forest Service offered its hypothesis for the decline in a 2009 draft travel plan for the Bitterroot National Forest. It acknowledged local concerns over wolves while suggesting that human hunters might have had more to do with it.
"FWP increased the number of antlerless elk permits in the mid-2000s because elk populations exceeded objectives, and recent antlerless harvests have been high," the report states. "FWP feels that the decline in elk numbers in the Bitterroot is likely primarily due to increased antlerless harvests achieving a planned management reduction, and that there is no evidence that wolves or combined predator numbers have much to do with the decline of elk counted through 2008."
The Forest Service also said that poor forage in 2006 might have contributed to stress the following year, and could explain low survival rates for elk calves.
The main problem up the West Fork is calf recruitment, the rate at which young elk survive their first years and reproduce. Right now, calves aren't surviving long enough to replace older elk in the herd. At last count, there were only 11 calves per 100 cows in the West Fork. Healthy herds have about 25. As for the hunting pressure cited by the Forest Service, that reduction was planned, Jourdonnais says. Those populations should have rebounded quickly, and they haven't.
Biologists believe there could be many factors at play here. That's why Jimenez checks the marrow on dead elk: If it's weak and looks gelatinous, it could be indicative of poor nutrition and explain poor survival in harsh months. If all he sees are wolf kills, that could be telling, too.
So far, Jimenez has been less alarmed by wolf activity in the West Fork than by other factors. He was surprised to find that mountain lions killed 13 tagged elk calves last year. And they've noted far fewer black bear kills than they anticipated. Wolf predation will likely increase as more snowpack accumulates this winter, he says. Last year, the agency recorded only three confirmed wolf kills on tagged calves.
Considering the high rate of lion predation, Jourdonnais says, the study may highlight a need for FWP to more thoroughly investigate the lion population in the West Fork. The agency has no solid population figures. Wolves could be taking the rap for them.
Or, Jimenez says, the wolves could just be contributing to a lion problem by pushing lions off fresh kills. Jimenez hopes to get some remote field cameras placed on dead game to capture possible predator interactions.
Or perhaps the problem lies outside the West Fork. Tracking the elk's movements is vital to knowing where portions of the herd spend their summers. Biologists won't have a full set of such data until Jimenez finishes collecting dropped elk collars. But depending on where the elk tend to forage, FWP could be looking at a separate branch of its study dedicated to analyzing vegetation at summer grounds. Jimenez says that aspect would likely be taken up by FWP's partner in the project, the University of Montana.
The question of movement among the elk seems as important as predation. And it feeds into a broader concern about changes on the landscape. The West Fork doesn't look like it did decades ago, Jourdonnais says. There's significantly more irrigated land on the valley bottom, which could mean elk aren't moving to public land at higher elevations in the fall as they once did.
From what Jimenez has seen from the air and the ground, the elk aren't crossing Highway 93 into the East Fork and the Big Hole, not in any large numbers. And they aren't moving into Idaho. Years ago, Jourdonnais says, people felt strongly that there was a significant amount of movement by the West Fork elk over Nez Perce Pass. But, he says, "I cannot find that contingent of elk that we would feel are Idaho elk, so there may be some changes along those lines as well—that we're just not getting the same kinds of movement and migration we did decades ago."
If elk are staying in the West Fork year-round, it's not the West Fork as it used to be. The wildfires of 2000 torched thousands of acres of thick forest in the Bitterroot, changing habitat for scores of species. The intensity varied greatly in the East and West forks, Jourdonnais says, making it difficult to determine exactly how those fires impacted the elk, but it has "removed a lot of the security cover that was there at one time," he says. "Those elk have not necessarily tended to abandon the areas that they've always occupied. In some cases, it makes them more visible to hunters because the understory is burned off."
The fires could also explain the dramatic spike in elk numbers in the mid 2000s, Jimenez says. Between 2000 and 2005, the West Fork population rose from 1,215 to 1,914. Wildfires typically generate rapid forage growth, which lasts five to 10 years. As that growth subsides, however, the forage may not be enough to sustain such a large elk herd. "You saw a pretty big spike in elk numbers sometime in the early to mid 2000s," he says. "They were up to 1,800 or 1,900. It could have been a lot of things, but that coincided with when the burn was really productive."
The elk study still has two years to go.
People in the Bitterroot want answers now. "It might be global warming," says outfitter Scott Boulanger. "Maybe Bigfoot. You know what I think it is? It's aliens. Aliens could be snatching up all the calves. We don't know. There's a lot of things out there happening unexplained. You prove to me there's no such thing as Santa Claus. It's smoke and mirrors, man."
Boulanger doesn't get riled easily. He's a big guy, barrel-chested, with cowboy boots and the look of countless days in the backcountry. His smart phone squawks with updates from his hunting camp. He has a long-range radio app that lets him communicate with his crews out in the woods.
But talk about the West Fork long enough and redness begins to spread across Boulanger's face. He speaks faster, interrupts himself in mid-sentence. He bought Circle KBL Outfitters 14 years ago and runs the only overnight hunting camp in the West Fork. He used to make his living taking non-resident hunters after elk up there, for four or five years. He'd take in 50 hunters a season at $3,000 a head. "I fed my family, paid my mortgage, just on West Fork elk hunting," he says. "Gone. The income last year was zero dollars."
Boulanger isn't the only one talking about financial loss. In response to the elk decline, FWP restricted the number of hunting permits in the West Fork to 25. A mere 10 percent of those—two tags—are available to non-resident hunters. For the few outfitters operating in the West Fork, the limit amounts to a death sentence for elk guiding in District 250.
Scott Fillingham didn't book a single elk hunter there last year, shifting his activity almost solely to districts nearer to his Hamilton base. On June 4, 2011, Indian Summer Outfitters owner Joe Ferraro held an auction for his outfitting equipment, his stock, his outfitter client list and his domain name.
Ferraro's fellow outfitters point to his closure—and his inability to sell much of his business—as just one example of the difficulties the elk decline has generated.
Hotels, too, are suffering. Jerry Dicken, owner of the Mountain Spirit Inn, in Darby, appeared before the Ravalli County Commission late last year to testify to his economic struggle. He echoed the popular sentiment that wolves are to blame for decreasing elk and deer populations. In the past several years, he says, he's seen a dip in seasonal business indicative of the decline in hunter visits to the Bitterroot. "In 2008, our November occupancy was 45 percent. In 2009, it was 31 percent. And in November 2010, it was only 23 percent." Dicken says he hasn't yet calculated the loss of business through the 2011 hunting season.
Hunters apparently just aren't flocking to the Bitterroot in search of trophy elk the way they used to. Local hunters aren't having much luck either.
"Not very many people are able to tag much," Dicken says. "A lot of the hunters here in the past year basically went after cows. That was it. They just went out for the meat instead of the bigger elk. There just weren't many to be had."
Big Bear Taxidermy in downtown Darby keeps hearing the same thing from hunters: There just isn't any game in the West Fork. They keep busy tanning hides and cranking out black bear rugs. On a recent Thursday, the shop had a zebra hide and an ibex hide resting on one of the backroom tables. Big Bear gets a lot of out-of-state business, says Dustin Nielsen, who's worked preparing hides and mounts at the shop for four years. And they did receive several wolves from Montana and Idaho already this season, including one of the three shot up the West Fork. There have been very few elk this season, though, he says, and fewer mule deer and moose.
The economic trickle effect of the elk decline coupled with the supposition that wolves are to blame caught the attention of Ravalli County officials last year. Commissioners called on locals to submit stories of run-ins with wolves and to supply information about how businesses have been hit by the wolf's reintroduction. The evidence began to stack up. A Hamilton rancher shot two wolf pups standing in a field near his sheep in August. A third pup was hit by a car on Highway 93 south of Darby later that month, supposedly while feeding on road kill. Commissioner Suzy Foss said residents no longer feel safe allowing their children to play outside unsupervised.
"We have historic cattle ranches from the Sula basin to Florence going under, especially those with grazing permits they can no longer use," Foss wrote to FWP officials and Gov. Brian Schweitzer in September. "Our farm production is down due to elk feeding year round in hay and grain fields...Pets are disappearing from front porches. Sheep, goats and chickens are prey to young lions and wolves down on the valley floor due to the losses in our deer populations and the fact that they too have been driven from the forests to the river bottoms following the remaining herds seeking safety."