Predator puzzle 

Study raises questions over what's killing Bitterroot elk

Darby outfitter Scott Boulanger sent a written plea to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) about two months back asking for an emergency closure of hunting district 250—the West Fork of the Bitterroot River—for 2010. As justification he cited a 21 percent decline in the resident elk population over the past four years, a statistic that has local big game hunting businesses fearing financial ruin.

"They're not mysteriously disappearing," says Boulanger, who has operated Circle KBL Outfitters for 13 years and sits on the Bitterroot Elk working group. "They're not all of a sudden migrating into some mysterious zone on the Salmon River, because the outfitters that are on the Salmon and Selway rivers aren't suddenly surrounded by a plethora of elk. I've been screaming this for years."

His answer to the riddle is simple: over predation.

Boulanger's request failed, and frankly didn't surprise biologists with FWP. The 21 percent decline statistic was theirs, gathered from annual aerial surveys of herds in the Bitterroot Valley. It's exactly why they've pitched an ambitious new study on elk productivity and survivability in Ravalli County, and why they're now casting a wide net for funding from the private sector. They don't, however, agree with Boulanger's take on the situation.

"People have said, 'Well, we know what's going on. It's the wolf,'" says FWP Wildlife Biologist Craig Jourdonnais. "There's no question that the wolf is a big piece of this puzzle, but I'm not convinced. So many things have happened in the Bitterroot in the past 20 years that there's a lot working on these wildlife populations. We've had some tremendous subdivision development on winter ranges throughout the valley, we've had extensive wildfires that have burned thousands and thousands of acres, and we have weed infestations impacting thousands of acres."

click to enlarge According to aerial surveys, elk populations have declined 21 percent in the Bitterroot Valley over the last four years. The dramatic change has generated a new study to find out why. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • According to aerial surveys, elk populations have declined 21 percent in the Bitterroot Valley over the last four years. The dramatic change has generated a new study to find out why.

The study, green-lighted by FWP this spring, calls for the darting and radio collaring of 40 cow elk in February 2011 and the tagging of 60 calves through 2011 and 2012. By monitoring the animals over a three-year period, Jourdonnais says the agency will finally establish a long-overdue baseline of data on the Bitterroot elk population. Without a comprehensive data stream on the general health of the herds and the condition of their habitat, it's difficult to determine how the agency should incorporate the predator population—wolves, mountain lions and black bears—in its management decisions.

"If it's a habitat and body condition problem primarily, then changes in predator quotas aren't really going to produce the result that we want, which is increased calf recruitment and increased elk counts," says Kelly Proffitt, an FWP biologist in Bozeman and project leader for the new study.

But Boulanger sees the project—more specifically, the $150,000 startup cost cited by Jourdonnais and the additional thousands needed to complete the work—as wasted money. Elk thrived in the West Fork for decades, he says, before FWP reduced annual lion and black bear harvests. Increases in the resident wolf population have only contributed to the problem. Now he refers to HD 250 as "a predator pit."

"A study's not going to fix that," he says. "Killing predators is going to fix it. We know the problem. There's going to be no magic data coming out of this study."

Outfitters have already felt the pinch of lower elk numbers in the Bitterroot in the form of limited opportunities for big game hunting. FWP has drastically reduced antlerless elk permits in HD 250 over the past few years, to the point that only 25 licenses are available for the 2010-hunting season. Out-of-state clients would be lucky to get one, Boulanger says, and there'd be no guarantee of a productive hunt if they did.

"Without any kind of legitimate success, you have no chance of repeat business," he says.

The argument isn't lost on the agency. While Jourdonnais says it's not his job to be an "economic driver," he believes the potential for the study to benefit the Bitterroot economy is exactly what separates it from past elk research in Montana. Proffitt is now in the process of wrapping up a project in the Greater Yellowstone Area that FWP began years ago on predator-prey relationships and brucellosis transmission. Before that, elk research focused primarily on the North Fork of the Flathead River near Glacier National Park.

"Now we're working in an environment here where we're not associated with any national park," Jourdonnais says. "This is a real working landscape where people are trying to make a living and recreate, and my job is to make wildlife fit in a place where people are doing those things."

Mac Minard, executive director for the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, doesn't share in the condemnation of FWP's new study. As far as the association is concerned, conservation of the resource is the only way for hunters to ensure the continued success of wildlife populations and longevity of the big game economy. It's essentially a catch-22.

"Certainly declining hunting opportunity results in declining non-resident and resident hunting opportunity, and in our case that means lost revenue," Minard says. "But that concern is secondary to sound management. We're all in this for the long haul, not for the short run, and one of our concerns here is that as populations decline as they are in the Bitterroot, we believe what we should be doing is invoking a sort of precautionary principle."

Boulanger's anger isn't fueled by an anti-conservation sentiment, though. It's fueled by mounting frustration, by economic loss and by the fact that he can't please even his non-hunting clients in the Bitterroot.

"I just finished a six-day, 50-mile trip and saw one mule deer buck and one mule deer doe," Boulanger says. "The customers from back east were like, 'We thought we'd see some wildlife.' We told them, 'Yeah, we thought you would too.'"

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