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Elk are First Arrivals for
Game Range Celebration

Game Range column
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
May 27, 1999

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks


If you haven't taken a drive across Woodworth Road, through the old Dreyer Ranch, in quite a while, this would be an excellent time to think about doing so.

But, drive slowly to avoid colliding with sunbathing elk!

Ted Murphy and family have developed an attractive resort for 100 or more elk from the Blackfoot-Clearwater herd this spring. "Palm Springs North" is located about 1.5-2.0 miles east of Cozy Corner, where water from the Dreyer irrigation ditch is flooding green haymeadows on the old Dreyer property. It seems that Ted, Lynn, Laurie and all have really taken to the tasks of providing spring forage for elk on this portion of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range.

As far as I know, Jamie Jonkel wins the prize for spotting the first calf elk of the season. It was in the old clearcut on the uphill side of Woodworth Road, just a bit southeast of the Dreyer meadows, and if memory serves, the date was about May 16. That's early, compared with the normal peak of calving season around June 1, but it's pretty much on schedule for the first early birds to begin arriving.

Jamie said he saw the cow first, bedded in the clearcut. He might not have paid more attention if her head had not been turned back along her side. As Jamie watched, he noticed she was licking something and then he was able to catch glimpses of different colored hair that betrayed the calf's presence.

Odds would seem to favor the survival of this calf. Its early birth stems from an early breeding event, probably in the first week of September, which in turn suggests that both the cow and bull were healthy adults. (Rutting activity may be delayed among bulls and cows in poor physical condition, or among first-time breeders.) And, early birth dates in Yellowstone National Park have been correlated with increased escapement of newborn calves from predation by bears. The theory goes something like this. The bears aren't really primed and ready for the first calves that hit the ground, but this first wave of activity alerts at least a few bears to calving events that follow.

I guess that makes Jamie's calf a whistleblower. And, while depredating bears are harassing the late arrivals, Jamie's calf will continue to benefit from a two-week headstart on the process of gaining weight and strength through spring and summer. This headstart at such an important time in the animal's life cycle could pay off when the next hard winter comes along.

Calves aren't the only things growing on the old Dreyer place. When Sharon and I were driving by on the way back from last week's public hearing, we got a good look at two bulls that already sported heavy antlers and brow tines. I suppose the main beams might have been two feet long, and they gave no indication that the diameters would taper off much before the beams grow quite a bit longer. We're only about a month into the antler growing season, so the progress represented in the velvet-covered antlers on those two big bulls was quite impressive. I wonder if you can hear antlers growing the way people say you can hear corn growing in Iowa.

Elk on the Dreyer Ranch is a springtime tradition, but what seems unusual to me this year is the carefree attitude of these animals. I don't remember them being so thoroughly unconcerned in past years. During the midday hours, they'll at least strike an alert posture, but in the late evening, they seem content to go about their business near the edge of the road with nary a notice while vehicles pass only a few yards away.

Maybe they're settling in for the June 12 Celebration! Certainly it would be fitting for elk to graze in the nearby meadows as we commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range at the Horseshoe Hills Guest Ranch next month, but I wouldn't count on it.

So, I suggest you take a drive over to Woodworth before May goes away, just in case the elk decide to go with it.

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