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Wild game finds refuge on private land

There’s probably nothing more frustrating for an elk hunter than waking at 5 a.m., creeping through woods and dense underbrush, scouring ridge tops, tracking faint sign and sitting motionless for hours on the edge of high country meadows all weekend only to drive home empty handed.

Well, there might be one thing more frustrating, and that’s seeing a herd of 300 elk on your way home, casually grazing in broad daylight inside the confines of a private ranch where they’re safe from would-be elk harvesters.

That scene plays out more and more in western Montana as private landholders buy up large tracts of land, lock out hunters, and thus create private refuges for deer, elk and other wildlife species. While that might sound like good news for game species in terms of their numbers, the trend creates serious challenges for wildlife managers, hunters, and even wildlife species themselves.

“The problem has been building for quite a number of years now,” says Mike Thompson, Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) Region 2 wildlife manager.

Wildlife managers must meet a legislative directive that requires FWP to manage elk, deer, and antelope at “sustainable population numbers” by January 1, 2009. But that goal will be hard to achieve unless private landowners let more hunters hunt what are becoming practically private game herds.

“It seems like it’s especially worse in dry years,” Thompson says of the concentration of deer and elk on private lands. “There’s a tendency for elk in dry summers and dry early fall periods to work down into the lower elevations where they’ve found irrigated alfalfa or pasture.”

And climate change contributes to the problem. Milder winters result in low calf mortality, so elk populations increase. But early and extended drought seasons drive those larger herds out of the high country and into valleys much earlier in the year than usual. Once they find a spot where they’re free to roam and feed without fear of predation or hunting, that’s where they’ll stay for the remainder of the season, Thompson says.

This relatively recent change in wildlife behavior bodes ill for the long-term health of elk herds, says Thompson. For starters, elk are migratory animals. Under historic conditions an elk herd might occupy as much as 250 square miles of land over the course of the year. But as elk herds become habituated to the easy living of private land—where there’s plenty of food, fewer predators, and little or no hunting—they’re “forgetting” how to be wild elk.

“Instead of 300 or 400 elk that would have used public lands in the backcountry for a good long period of the year, more and more they’re spending almost all their time on private land,” Thompson says. “As cows fail to show their calves migration routes and show them how to make a living in the wild year round, they’re losing the herd knowledge.”

Thompson says elk herds in some cases now spend the entire year on less than 10 percent of the land they historically occupied. Wildlife managers began radio collaring an elk herd near Helmville in the early 1990s. At that time the elk would migrate in the late spring from the Helmville Valley west to their summer range near Elevation Mountain in the Garnet Range.

“Between 2002 and 2006 we’ve been able detect no migration whatsoever,” Thompson says.

Nearby, hunters report another herd of 200 to 300 elk and upwards of 40 to 50 deer grazing in fields owned by the Resort at Paws Up along Highway 200 near Greenough. A spokeswoman for the resort acknowledged a “resident herd,” but attempts to contact a Paws Up outfitter for more information were not successful as of press time.

The concentration of wild game on private lands can create long-term problems for the health and diversity of other wildlife populations as well. For instance, when large numbers of animals are occupying the same limited space for long periods of time, the potential for a disease escalates. And, Thompson says, when elk and deer abandon traditional backcountry habitat in favor or private refuges, the entire ecosystem suffers.

“There are extended effects of concentrating the prey base entirely on private lands instead of in the wild,” Thompson says.

Predators and scavengers such as wolves, mountain lions, wolverines and bears rely on deer and elk carcasses to sustain them during the harsh winter months. If they can’t find the food they need in the backcountry, those animals will move to their prey, which can mean closer to people.

And while game species that congregate on private lands can thrive, their more wild brethren are paying the price. Deer and elk populations are on the rise in Montana, but the number of animals harvested by hunters has not seen a corresponding increase. According to Thompson, wildlife managers believe that’s the result of increased hunting pressure on those elk and deer that remain in the backcountry.

“If you’re maintaining the same harvest with more elk, you’re harvesting those comparatively fewer elk on public land,” he says.

The danger there is that eventually the truly wild game populations that possess the inherited herd knowledge and behavior patterns of their ancestors could be wiped out.

“It’s a huge problem,” Thompson says.

Fish, Wildlife & Parks educates landowners on the important role hunting plays in managing healthy deer and elk populations, but some private landowners find it profitable to coddle resident wildlife populations by charging well-heeled hunters a premium price to bag a trophy.

Thompson says there’s no easy solution in sight.

“You think about all the effort that hunters and other conservationists went through to reestablish these wildlife populations in the 20th century, and I don’t think anybody would have guessed we’d have these kinds of problems trying to manage them,” Thompson says. “It’s going to be a rough road ahead.”
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