Most Elk Range
Isn't on the Game Range


Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles
by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder



October 12, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson

As one Blackfoot Valley rancher likes to remind me, roughly 85% of the elk in Montana are NOT associated with the Blackfoot-Clearwater or any other state Game Range.

Actually, he doesn't cite this particular statistic. He prefers instead to simply point toward the elk out his window, which are among the growing number of wild animals that are learning to live on private ranches year-round.

And, while he naturally questions why Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) spends so much time and money on the relatively little habitat it owns, it occurs to me that other readers may not realize how much time and money FWP puts into its responsibilities for addressing game damage problems on private lands.

Just last week, for example, a local ranch family and FWP employees earned some mutual respect.

For one day, at least, a grizzly bear expert (Jamie Jonkel), a lion researcher (Mike Maples), an assistant to the grizzly bear expert and lion researcher (Bob Wiesner) and a student of wildlife biology from the University of Montana (Shawn Cleveland) worked side by side with a family that was raised on the land, and continue to ranch it as their parents did before them.

And, I don't mean "worked" the way I'm "working" on this newspaper article. I mean they "worked" with their hands, arms, backs, legs and lungs, all day long, digging dirt, shoveling gravel, tamping it firm.

This was a group effort in more ways than one. Because the fence they built served multiple ranch and wildlife objectives, it qualified for cost-sharing among several agencies and programs. FWP, the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the North Powell Conservation District pooled resources to purchase the fence materials. The ranch provided the equipment, expertise and most of the labor for installation, with a long day's help from FWP.

FWP's role in this job was to make the fence "elk proof," to keep elk out of hay and feeders, and away from newborn calves.

How many elk are we talking about? Well, without even trying, John Firebaugh and I counted 300 in the fields on a neighboring private property last week, and last spring I counted over 500 during the annual count by airplane. Living on the place and working outdoors 365 days a year, the landowners can account for even more.

Still, these landowners don't hate elk. The father grew up at a time when elk were not plentiful in this country. You had to work to find them and you remembered the experience when you did.

No, these landowners don't hate elk at all. But, they are extremely frustrated with the serious, expensive damage to crops and fences, and the operational disruption that hundreds of elk can cause when they mingle with cattle in winter feeding and calving areas. And, they are extremely frustrated with the knowledge that much of this is out of their control.

Because they are doing everything they can to address this problem on their own. Many people don't realize that section 87-1-225 of Montana law requires a landowner to "allow public hunting during established hunting seasons" in order to qualify for game damage assistance. In response to landowner concerns in the early 1990s, FWP Region 2 made it as easy as possible for landowners in the Ovando-Helmville Valley to comply with this requirement by issuing an unlimited number of licenses for the harvest of antlerless elk on private land (see District 298 in your deer/elk regulations booklet). Most ranchers have taken advantage of this opportunity, as it was intended, to get licenses for antlerless elk in the hands of trusted friends and relatives to achieve the safest and most efficient control of elk numbers on private lands. Rest assured that dollars from your hunting licenses were spent on land that is open to hunting.

In the case of the ranch where Jamie's crew worked last week, elk numbers have increased in the face of some of the most liberal hunting regulations in Montana. Why? Because elk still find refuge in hunting season on other private lands nearby where adequate access has not been allowed to control population numbers. So, FWP and surrounding affected landowners are doing their best to address the resulting game damage problems.

Usually, FWP's response to a game damage complaint involves assessment, consultation, and in some cases, a contribution of scare devises, fencing or other materials as appropriate. In 1990, FWP spent over $120,000 in response to game damage complaints statewide. As a practical matter, FWP seldom provides labor. (There are only 20 wildlife biologists and wardens employed year-round to cover 1,750,000 acres of private land across FWP Region 2, and attend to duties across an additional 5,000,000 acres of public and corporate ownerships in the region.)

But, every now and then, it's good for FWP to get a glimpse first-hand of how it feels to fix what the elk have broken. And, to realize that after FWP goes home, the landowner will go back out the next day and do more of the same.

One day like that goes a long way toward keeping FWP sympathetic to the cause of managing elk numbers to control damage on private land. When it comes to elk numbers, more is not always merrier. And, it also reaffirms the wisdom of continuing to manage our Game Ranges as one important strategy for maintaining large elk herds in key locations across the state, while limiting impacts to private lands.

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