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Elk Numbers Climbing
between Drummond and Ovando

Seeley Swan Pathfinder
April 29, 1999
by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks


This year, people seem especially interested in numbers of elk on the Meyer Ranch. Maybe widespread and persistent rumors of up to 1,500 elk on the property have something to do with it.

As a result, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) put in a little extra effort to survey elk numbers along the east slope of the Garnet Range, west of Helmville. In January, we added a few miles to our normal survey area for mule deer, and used the helicopter to obtain a more complete count of elk that live west of the road between Drummond and Ovando. On Sunday we finished an excellent spring survey of elk in that same portion of Hunting District 292, using a small airplane.

Despite substantial shifts in elk distribution between winter and spring, our results from the two surveys were quite comparable. In January, we counted 575 elk. In April, we counted 524. Both are record high counts for this area, which FWP has been surveying every spring for decades.

Of course, we're not so arrogant as to assume that we successfully observed every elk in the area. In fact, our counts of bull elk in April proved we missed a few animals in January. We counted 65 bulls in January, but found a total of 93 in April. This was expected because older bulls tend to withdraw from cow-calf groups and hole up in thick timber during winter. Bulls also tend to remain by themselves in early spring, but they are easier to count when they forsake the dark timber for open, green meadows in springtime. If we add the 28 bulls we missed to the January count, a conservative maximum count of 603 elk is obtained.

Although modesty and caution are warranted when interpreting the results of elk counts, we can be quite confident that we didn't miss 900! There is no question in my mind that someone saw a lot of elk on or near the Meyer Ranch last fall, but I can't find any data to support the rumor of 1,500 head, even when considering other elk in the vicinity that might have come to visit for a few days.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of elk on and around the Meyer Ranch in HD 292. This is especially noteworthy in the face of the hard winter two years ago and low calf survival. In January, we observed 21 calves for every 100 cows classified. In April, we classified just over 16 calves per 100 cows. Classifying 10 and 11 month-old calves in the spring is a weak link in the science of elk management, and it is even more difficult from an airplane than a helicopter. So, it's not surprising that the spring survey by airplane uncovered fewer calves than the winter survey by helicopter.

Elk on the Meyer Ranch and vicinity generate a lot of interest because this property of some 25,000 acres has been closed to public hunting in the 1990s. Elk numbers have increased steadily as a result and these elk have developed a strong affinity for the security and irrigated hayfields provided by the ranch. From 1983-1989, spring elk counts increased from 24 to 150. From 1990 to the present, spring counts have increased from 222 to this year's 524.

Hunters are interested in knowing how many elk occupy the ranch in relation to numbers of elk available to support hunting recreation on publicly accessible lands. While elk numbers have been increasing on the Meyer Ranch, elk counts on public and accessible private lands in the nearby Chamberlain and Elk Creek drainages have been uneven and suggest a slow decline over the past four years. I'll be interested to see how our counts go this spring when we get around to the Chamberlain area in the next few mornings.

Landowners are interested in knowing how the Meyer Ranch elk affect incidences of game damage and economic losses on their neighboring ranches. FWP captured and radio-collared elk on the Meyer Ranch and other private ranches around Ovando in 1994 to address this question. Results indicated that Meyer Ranch elk generally stayed close to home and were not responsible for damage caused on ranches located north and east of Ovando. However, they do cause damage to fences and hay on ranches in the immediate vicinity of the Meyer Ranch.

Throughout the twentieth century, some of the most difficult issues FWP has faced have involved management of the public's elk on large landholdings that allow a private landowner to almost exclusively control the movements and harvest of the herd. Such situations highlight the challenge of balancing the public interest in wildlife with private property rights. FWP will continue exploring options with the Meyer Ranch to help the owners maintain gains they have achieved in bull numbers, while increasing opportunities for public hunting access and management of total elk numbers.

FWP Lion Researchers to Speak

Mountain lions and other predators may have something to "say" about elk numbers in the long run. You already know that FWP is conducting research on lions in the Garnet Range, but you may not know that the project biologist for the lion study, Rich DeSimone, will present an entertaining and informative program for the public on May 5 at the Seeley Lake Community Center. I hope you'll join us at 7:00 p.m. to learn what Rich and Bill Semmens have been up to.

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