Seeley Swan Pathfinder
April 22, 1999
by Mike Thompson,
MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks
It gets to be a habit. When you spend every morning counting elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, moose, coyotes, black bears and whatever else may step out of the trees beneath your airplane or helicopter, you find yourself counting everything. Everywhere. All the time.
During the rest of the year, I'm satisfied to notice a couple, a few, or a whole bunch of geese flying by when I'm walking the dog. But, in spring, when our wildlife counts are in full swing, I count every last one. I find myself counting the number of different wildlife species I see or hear whenever I'm out and about. Sharon and I even count Volkswagen beetles and keep track of who sees the most each day. (A new model is worth two points!)
Today, I found myself counting up the number of fish and wildlife research projects that are now underway, or were recently completed, in the greater Seeley Lake area. I came up with 19 studies of 16 species or species groups since 1990. A couple of the research leaders are independent of any university or agency, while others hail from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), University of Montana, Montana State University, Bureau of Land Management, Lolo National Forest and Northern Rockies Research Station.
It would seem that Seeley Lake and the Seeley-Swan/Blackfoot valleys are the hubs of a wheel of activity that is presently underappreciated. And, with all this "state-of-the-art" information available at our fingertips, it's no wonder that local fish, wildlife and habitat management programs are moving forward with exceptional success.
Is there a better example than the Game Range 50th Anniversary Project? This effort to bring 7,800 acres of Plum Creek inholdings into FWP and DNRC ownership is rooted in solid biological information on elk migrations provided by Mark Hurley in the late 1980s, and on relationships between wintering elk and deer described by Ross Baty in the early 1990s. Coming soon will be Rick Ward's analysis of lichen production and deer use of lichen on the Game Range. Without this firm foundation of credible information beneath us, it probably would not be possible to move agencies, corporations, other private organizations and individual citizens toward the common goal of also moving a mountainBoyd Mountaininto public ownership.
While we tend to emphasize the connection between the Game Range and points north, much current research is concentrated immediately south of the Game Range, in the Garnet Mountains. Milo Burcham (University of Montana) has been studying elk in the Chamberlain and Elk Creek drainages for several years, and recently expanded his study to include moose in and around the same area. Milo reports an elevated risk of airsickness while flying to search for 18 radioed moose, compared with the lower stomach stress of finding 30 radioed elk. He says that the plane has to circle much longer to obtain visual confirmation of a radioed moose in thick timber, and, coincidentally I'm sure, he's asked me to make a moose flight in his stead next month.
Milo's elk and moose study area is smack in the middle of a long-term study of mountain lions being conducted by FWP researchers Rich DeSimone and Bill Semmens. Currently, Rich and Bill are working on promising techniques for capturing lions in the summer months, which would be advantageous for minimizing potential conflicts with public hunting activities during winter.
Of course, Seeley Lake folks are familiar with the lynx research being conducted by John Squires and others from the Northern Rockies Research Station. And, we're fortunate to have Tom Parker and his team keeping tabs on forest carnivores in the Swan Valley.
Let's not forget our Loon Lady, Lynn Kelly, and her expanding monitoring and research on loon populations across western Montana. But, did you know that research is beginning on sharp-tailed grouse in the Helmville Valley? Ben Deeble, who completed his masters thesis on these birds a few years back, is in the field again this spring, trying to capture and radio sharptails for more intensive study. We hope to hear from Ben in this column before too long.
Sally Hjel and other Forest Service researchers will continue their work on the response of cavity nesting birds to the Pearson Creek fire of 1994. FWP is happy to contribute bunking facilities for Sally's crew at the Game Range headquarters. Remember that Susan Hitchcox received her masters thesis for work on cavity nesters in relation to the Game Range fire of 1991.
Jeff Short, a student from Montana State University, is working on the effects of cattle grazing treatments on forage production for elk at the Game Range. He also uses the Game Range headquarters as his home base in summer. And, while we're back on the subject of large mammals, do you remember the senior thesis that Jeff Van Zandt recently completed on the mountain goats of Dunham Creek?
While the Jeffs are interested in living large mammals, our own Jamie Jonkel studies the dead. He'll conduct the third year of elk and deer carcass surveys on the Game Range this spring, providing insights on levels and patterns of predation during winter. He's also been tallying and examining road kills over the past two years to obtain a more complete accounting of deer and elk mortality rates.
FWP biologists in Region 2 are laying the ground work for an upcoming study of bighorn sheep populations, in cooperation with Dan Pletscher at the University of Montana. We hope to learn more about three populations that originated by sheep dispersing from neighboring transplanted herds. These three populations are glimmers of hope that bighorn sheep will someday fill the gaps in their historic distribution across western Montana, and that reintroduced populations will not always remain widely separated and isolated.
There are others on my list, but I've more than made my point. I thought it would please you to remember that many of the management programs and projects we discuss in public meetings and political arenas are being built from the ground up. Even in the computer age, wildlife biology still takes place in the field, and FWP is still a field oriented agency.