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Elk populations: Real and Imagined

Seeley Swan Pathfinder

February 25, 1999

by Mike Thompson
Wildlife Biologist
Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Game Range Column

You can't know where you're going if you don't know where you've been. When considering FWP management of elk populations in the Seeley Lake area, the sarcastic among you might rely, "0 for 2," especially if it's been a couple of years since you last saw an elk during hunting season.

Today, I'm going to show you exactly where we think we've been, and where we think we're going, when it comes to management of the Blackfoot-Clearwater elk population. And, in the process of preparing this article for you, I've come to believe that the history teachers are right. You can learn an awful lot about the future by studying events in the past.

Faithful Pathfinder readers will surely recognize the graph of elk population trends on this page. But, look closely. You'll see for the first time the graphed data from the helicopter survey that FWP completed last month on the Game Range. And, you'll see predicted data from surveys over the next six years. My crystal ball started fogging up beyond the year 2005, but you'll be relieved to know that I experienced no technical difficulties when prognosticating across the Y2K threshold.

Of course, you don't have to be a wildlife biologist to close your eyes and draw graphs of the future. And, you don't have to be Johnny Cochran to raise reasonable doubts about their accuracy. But, my predictions do reflect FWP's management objectives for the coming six years, with reality factored in to the greatest extent possible.

So, where does reality come from when you haven't been there yet? That's where the history lesson comes in, and the review of past data.

For example, the graph clearly shows that FWP plans to manage for an increase in the Blackfoot-Clearwater elk population over the next three years. Experience has shown that we can accomplish this - if we don't have another hard winter like 1996-97. We first began restricting hunting pressure on cow elk to cause a population increase in the fall of 1995. The increase in elk numbers you see on the graph between 1995 and 1996 is the result of that FWP management action. This increase also includes losses to predators between the helicopter surveys of 1995 and 1996, as well as the effects of environmental factors beyond management control. Likewise, the graph shows the result of FWP's planned population increase between 1998 and 1999, again factoring in complicating factors in the real world, such as predation and weather.

Of course, you know what happened between the surveys of 1996 and 1998. That hard winter set us back to square one, and delayed FWP's planned population increase by three years. Another severe winter in the future would do the same.

How do we factor past reality into projections for the future? Well, as you can calculate for yourself, numbers of cow elk actually increased by 9.5% between 1995 and 1996, and by 9.4% between 1998 and 1999. So, I planned for an annual ate of increase of 9% to predict what could realistically occur in the future. By the way, this rate of increase in cow numbers occurred in the face of some poor to awful calf/cow ratios (22 in 1995, and 12 in 1998). So, poor calf survival is accounted for in the predictions, and any significant increase in calves will be a bonus.

FWP is planning to increase the harvest of cow elk and reduce the elk population again, beginning in the hunting season of 2002. Why? Well, experience has shown that elk seem to be overcrowded on the Game Range during winters when elk numbers are over 1,000. When overcrowding occurs, more elk disperse onto adjacent private lands than normal, which increases economic losses for ranchers.

My predictions for the rate of population decline are based on FWP's experience from 1989-1995, when we managed for a steady decrease in elk numbers. From this experience, we know how many numbers can peacefully coexist on the Game Range, and what level of harvest to expect from these higher hunter numbers. I predicted the rate of decline between the years 2002 and 2004, based on this experience and past data.

So, if 1,000 elk are too many, why not manage for 900 and keep the population stable, instead of planning to drive it up and down and up again? The objective for varying the population instead of holding it steady is to produce as many bull elk as possible (to support hunting recreation) while minimizing the stress on forage and other vegetation resources on the winter range.

If the elk population were held as near to the maximum forage capacity of the Game Range as possible, high elk numbers would exert a constant force on rough fescue, aspen and other vegetation, giving plants little relief from the pressure. Over many years, we might see a decline in plant production and vigor as a result, and a decline in the number of elk the Range could support. If we hold the elk population at a level below 900 elk - let's say 750 - for the sake of the vegetation, it might not be possible to maintain FWP's objective of 100 bulls surviving through the hunting season. There wouldn't be enough elk to maintain the necessary level of calf production and bull recruitment.

By allowing the elk population to occasionally pulse above the long-term capacity of the winter range - for only a year or two, as you see in the graphed example - we allow the population to achieve levels of calf production and bull recruitment that will sustain hunting for several years thereafter. Then, by quickly bringing the population into a temporary decline, we provide rest for the winter range, and, hopefully, avoid serious dispersals of elk onto neighboring ranches. These periods of relatively low elk numbers would be the times to accomplish periodic range improvements, by using prescribed fire, for example.

Regardless of whether my predictions come true or not, they are good for at least one purpose. They show you what FWP would like to do with your elk population over the next six years. Would that be O.K. with you? As always, feel free to let me know.

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