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Predator-Prey Issues Dominate
Seeley Lake Meeting

Seeley Swan Pathfinder
January 21, 1999

by Mike Thompson,
wildlife biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) officials played to a full house at the Seeley Lake Community Center last week, when they held their annual public meeting to discuss hunting regulations for the coming year.

At least, it must have sounded like a full house to passers-by when laughter erupted during the frequent joke trading sessions.

In reality, four hearty souls attended the meeting, and they embraced the power bestowed upon them by the absence of everyone else. They alone represented the interests of the Seeley Lake community in hunting regulations proposed by FWP for 1999. And, they made the most of that opportunity.

I wish I could repeat some of the jokes.

Of course, it would have been better to see and hear from more folks. But, the small group allowed us to discuss wildlife issues in greater depth, with much better group participation than would otherwise be possible. And, since FWP did not propose major changes in hunting regulations this year, we had more time than usual to discuss issues raised by our audience. That's how our discussion of predator-prey interactions began.

I noticed a marked improvement in Jamie Jonkel's posture when the subject came up. Jamie's in his glory wherever ravens and magpies gather, and he's devoted most of his life to the study of bears and lions. He honed his skills over the past 20 years, when numbers of large predators were low and of little consequence to hunters and most wildlife managers. Today, his uncommon experience is a valuable addition to FWP as predators begin to exert measurable effects on deer and elk populations.

Our conversation was open and frank. A concern was expressed that sport hunting is being replaced by predators. That hunting opportunities will be restricted as predators claim increasing shares of deer and elk populations. That FWP does not seem to have clear direction on how to strike a balance between predators, prey, and hunters. That FWP does not have adequate flexibility to manage predator populations that are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act (i.e., wolves and grizzly bears).

In my opinion, your defacto representatives in Seeley Lake have defined some of the most significant issues facing managers of hunted wildlife populations in the next century. These are exciting times to be a wildlife biologist, with grizzly bears, mountain lions, black bears, coyotes and the occasional wolf gaining prominence as an increasing combined influence on deer and elk populations, and also as valued resources worthy of careful conservation. but, these times will stress the institutions of hunting and wildlife management like never before.

We FWP folks were not prepared to address the full breadth of these issues in one short meeting. But, we did have a bit of useful information to share.

For example, our recent helicopter survey of the Game Range (January 9-10) demonstrated that we can indeed increase elk numbers in the face of current levels of predation and hunting. Our count of 842 elk indicated an annual increase of 11%. Although counts of white-tailed deer and mule deer are nowhere near as accurate, they fell within expected ranges and revealed no cause for concern.

Mortality surveys on the Game Range have also been revealing. Jamie and a large crew of volunteer assistants verified 33 predator kills of deer or elk among 74 total carcasses they discovered after the hard winter of 1996-97. Last spring, following the mild winter of 1997-98, Jamie's crew found only 24 total elk and deer carcasses. These findings indicate that we can carry elk and deer through mild winters with current predator densities. Tough winters can be expected to take a heavier toll, probably at somewhat higher rates than would be taken by winter weather alone in the absence of predators.

We've seen elk populations rebound to within 21 animals of their previous numbers in only two years since that hard winter of 1996-97. So, there is cause for some optimism about the resilience of elk populations under current rates of predation.

But, we've been lucky. We've had two successive mild winters that put predators at something of a disadvantage. And, we've had two successive hunting seasons when conditions favored elk and deer instead of hunters. The jury's still out on how elk and deer numbers will hold up under normal or high rates of hunter harvests. One of these years, we'll find out.

Also, our most recent helicopter survey provides some evidence that predation on elk calves during spring and summer is starting to have an effect on the numbers of calves we count during winter on the Game Range. Based on favorable weather events over the past two years, we predicted a calf/cow ratio of 35-45 calves per 100 cows this year, but we only observed a ratio of 23 this winter. The calves we observed were fat and large, which indicates that general nutritional stress was probably not the cause of an unexpectedly low ratio. The most obvious theory is predation on newborn elk calves.

If reduced survival rates of calves become the norm, we will need to compensate by maintaining higher numbers of adult females in the Game Range elk population to continue producing the total number of calves we need to sustain current hunting opportunities. FWP is already building Game Range elk numbers to meet this need, and innovative hunting seasons are already in place on adjacent private lands that should help avoid and control game damage problems such as have arisen in the past.

And, even though we have a wolf or two passing through the area, we don't yet have a resident wolf pack working the Game Range. When that day arrives, life will become even more interesting. It reminds me of a joke I heard at the Seeley Lake meeting. Seems Little Red Riding Hood was going to visit her Grandma...

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