November 11, 1999
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
by Mike Thompson,
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Jamie Gronley was the first special license-holder to kill an elk on the Game Range this season. As most people do, Jamie submitted a tooth from his harvested animal so that its age can be determined. But, in this case, laboratory analysis of the tooth will be a mere formality because Jamie also returned metal ear tags numbered 26940 and 30854, and a 4" x 32" strap of rubberized material with distinctive markings.
Yep, Jamie's elk was the one we knew as "Yellow, Open O's."
If ever there was an elk you could call Old Faithful, it was Yellow, Open O's. She first made her acquaintance with the Blackfoot-Clearwater elk studies on December 29, 1991, at the start of her second winter on the Game Range. (She was 1-1/2 years old.)
I'm sure she had been minding her own business on that day 8 years ago until her path intersected a strategically placed pile of third-cutting alfalfa. It looked so leafy and green atop the fresh snow, and it smelled more delicious than anything she'd ever smelled before in winter. But, it was clearly out of place. Nervously, she nudged the aromatic mound with her muzzle and licked a leaf or two from her nose. Mmmmmm!
At that moment, she would have followed those little piles anywhere. That's why Mark Hurley found her waiting in his trap on a crisp, Sunday morning in lower Slaughter Gulch, just within the timber at the base of Boyd Mountain. And, when Mark selected a yellow neck-collar from his satchel, painted with large, black-outlined O's for identification, the young female elk became known to science as Yellow, Open O's.
Apparently, a single encounter with Mark was enough to teach Yellow, Open O's not to accept alfalfa from strangers. As far as I can tell from a cursory look through the old trapping records, she never darkened the doors of our various traps again, even though many of her friends and neighbors were captured and recaptured on numerous occasions over the next few years.
However, she did remain faithful to the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range. Eleven days later, I spied her about 3 miles away from the site of her close encounter of the Hurley kind. She was with a group of 16 elk in some of the densest forest cover on the Game Range. We were lucky to see her, even with the assistance of a helicopter. Maybe she was attracted to others who shared her uncommon experience. Other females in her small group included "White, Red Stripe" and "Plain Blue." She even shared company that day with a mature bull elk that wore a collar with an experimental satellite transmitter. He had been darted and tranquilized from a helicopter a year or two earlier, and I blame him for taking this group to cover as soon as he heard our chopper approach.
Yellow, Open O's wasn't chosen to carry a radio transmitter. She was captured during a phase of study when radio collars were reserved for bulls. So, we would learn from her only what she would allow us to observe.
She next revealed her presence during the following year's annual helicopter census, when Ross Baty and I counted her in a group of 290 elk in the bunchgrass flats of the Game Range. The winter of 1992-93 followed the first growing season after the Game Range fire, which probably made the grass especially digestible that year. Elk were bunched up in large numbers, taking full advantage.
There was no helicopter census in 1994, but Ross and I returned in the hovercraft in early February 1995. Once again, Yellow, Open O's greeted us in the open bunchgrass flats, the only marked animal in a group of 100.
I introduced FWP's Habitat Bureau Chief to Yellow, Open O's in January 1996. Steve Knapp and I used the helicopter census to begin some early strategizing for the Reinoehl Conservation Easement and the 50th Anniversary Project. The Reinoehl easement was completed in January 1998, and the 50th Anniversary Project was kicked off soon after. Both efforts are securing critical winter habitats outside FWP's original ownership pattern on the Game Range. Yellow, Open O's? She was conveniently poised overlooking the Reinoehl Ranch, along with 147 other elk, in an impressive demonstration of the need to prevent residential subdivision on neighboring private lands. I began to take a shine to her.
She didn't show up in our survey in 1997, nor did most of the Blackfoot-Clearwater population during this unusually harsh winter. No doubt she took refuge with many others under a dense forested canopy somewhere out of sight on the Game Range or outside our survey area.
Jamie Jonkel and I began to get nervous about whether we were going to find the big bunch of elk in January 1998 as the helicopter scoured the bunchgrass to no avail. But, a few dozen elk on the edge of the old burn turned into a herd of 597, with Yellow, Open O's in attendance. It was a great relief to find the herd intact after the previous tough winter.
Which brings us to our latest survey, on January 9, 1999. Seven full years after her initial capture, at the ripe age of 8-1/2 years, Yellow, Open O's stood in a group of 573 elk. Mark Hurley's almost forgotten research was still paying dividends as Gary Burnett accompanied me in the helicopter to get more familiar with the place his Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation would adopt as one of its premier conservation projects in North America.
And now, having probably reared 4-7 calves to replace herself in the herd, Yellow, Open O's is nourishing Jamie Gronley's family in Kalispell, just as others of her kind have sustained human cultures for hundreds of years. This winter, when we resume FWP's elk trapping and marking program on the Game Range after a 6-year hiatus, I think I'll spruce up that old yellow neckband and put it out on another young female with a weakness for alfalfa. Just for old times sake.