A step ahead: Can wildlife managers lead elk to the hunt? 

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He ticks off the issues on his fingers. Family ranches are sold to out-of-state corporations, so hunters no longer develop trusting relationships with ranch owners, and fewer hunters are allowed on the land without paying for the privilege. But if private lands are opened only to paying hunters, that puts a monetary value on elk, essentially privatizing the public wildlife. Meanwhile, hotter, drier summers lead to more intense wildfires, which change forage conditions on public lands, limit food and drive animals to private irrigated fields. And politicians who lack wildlife-management experience institute laws that tie biologists' hands.

One such political action in Montana in 2003 required wildlife managers to meet elk population goals in each hunting district. They tried a variety of tactics, including special hunts, but the population continued to rise. Today, that means the state's elk population needs to be reduced by about 29,000. As in other Western states, says Kelly Proffitt, a biologist and wildlife researcher with Fish, Wildlife and Parks, "hunting is essentially the tool the agency uses to move populations up or down to reach those objective levels."

click to enlarge A helicopter chases elk to radio-collar them in order to help improve management in the north Sapphire Mountains and the rest of Montana. The North Sapphire Elk Research Project collected information on elk movements and habitat use, forage quality and other factors that potentially affect elk distribution and migratory behavior. - PHOTO COURTESY CRAIG JOURDONNAIS
  • photo courtesy Craig Jourdonnais
  • A helicopter chases elk to radio-collar them in order to help improve management in the north Sapphire Mountains and the rest of Montana. The North Sapphire Elk Research Project collected information on elk movements and habitat use, forage quality and other factors that potentially affect elk distribution and migratory behavior.

But 85 percent of Montana hunters with elk tags don't fill them. The elk may be on private land where they can't be shot, or the hunters may be using all-terrain vehicles, which tend to spook the animals, rather than hiking into the backcountry. Even in the best situations, getting an elk isn't easy. "Elk are smart. They're an intelligent game animal that knows the country," says John Vore, Montana's game management bureau chief.

In 2015, wildlife managers tried a new shoulder season plan in five hunting districts where populations were too high. It was considered a success, with an additional 643 elk taken during the extra season and the dispersal of large herds. In 2016, wildlife managers increased the number of hunting districts participating to 43 of the state's 138.

Montana's shoulder-season hunts are mainly on private property where landowners already have allowed some type of public access during the regular season. Those landowners can set limits on who can hunt on their property and how many elk they can harvest. The rub is that for the shoulder season to work, the elk have to stay on those properties. But landowners can't use artificial means, like salt blocks or fences, to encourage elk to stay. So managers try to trick the elk by hunting in one area but not another, then switching it up. Hunt some days, and not on others. Make the elk think the season is over when it's not. "The best way to hunt elk is with the least amount of pressure," Galt says.

On the MPG, as on many of the state's large ranches, elk wander on and off the unfenced property at will—and they seem to know when hunters are after them, says Jourdonnais. Radio collaring, used in a Fish, Wildlife and Parks study a few years ago, showed that the night before the general big game rifle-hunting season opened, the elk moved from the MPG Ranch to a neighboring one, where little, if any, hunting takes place. Elk experts theorize that the increase in humans gearing up for hunting season—scouting game trails, setting up camps, sighting in rifles—alerts the animals to upcoming danger, prompting their move to safe havens.

Elk, like humans, are incredibly adaptive, and they often respond differently to similar situations. Proffitt says the elk appear to perform a risk analysis. A study in the mid-2000s in south-central Montana's Madison Valley revealed that elk stayed on public lands there during archery season. Yet in the nearby Paradise Valley, archery season triggered the movement of elk to private lands where they can't be pursued. It's hard to make broad generalizations about the reasons behind the different behaviors, Proffitt notes. "Some herds don't have refuge areas as an option. Bulls just hole up somewhere and are less tied to forage (than cows with young). Weather is a big driving factor also in elk."

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • photo by Chad Harder

The shoulder season is meant to add a bit of unpredictability. Vore says it's too soon to know the results. Hunters aren't surveyed until after the season ends on Feb. 15. Anecdotally, though, he's hearing that this winter's deep snow made it difficult for hunters to reach any elk, and some landowners have not been cooperating.

Jourdonnais' assessment in early February is more blunt: The shoulder season was a bust, thanks mainly to bad weather. "We had 50 to 60 elk hunters out in the deep snow at 22 below zero. It was tough to be out there."

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