September 28, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
Game Range Ramblin's
Game Range Articles by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder
This is a big dealat least it's a big deal to meso the Region 2 Office of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) wants to give you plenty of opportunity to discuss this with us before you read it this winter in the tentative hunting regulations for 2001.
We are very seriously thinking of recommending a brow-tined bull regulation for elk hunting in Districts (HD) 283, 285 and 292, beginning next hunting season. This fall, any antlered bullthat is, any bull with at least one antler measuring 4 inches long or longerwill still be legal for properly licensed hunters in these districts, which border both sides of Highway 200 from Missoula to Ovando.
At this time, the idea of a brow-tined bull regulation in these districts is merely thatan idea. To be adopted as a tentative regulation for 2001, it would first have to be approved by FWP and the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission. We just wanted to give you an early glimpse of thoughts running through the minds of your local public servants, and an early chance to effect a very selective and hopefully painless thought-lobotomy.
Why the change in regulations? And hasn't it been an FWP biologist by the name of Thompson who's been arguing against a brow-tined bull season for HD 285 in the Seeley Lake area for the past 13 years?
For my part, the change is driven first by the need to address a problem of declining bull:cow ratios in HD 292, second by the importance of standardizing elk hunting regulations across the Blackfoot and Clearwater valleys, and third by the possibility of improving an already satisfactory age-structure of bulls in the Blackfoot-Clearwater elk herd (HD 285).
You can ask Bill Stewart about what's gone wrong in HD 292, the west Garnets. Bill is the capable pilot who has guided me (and others who have helped me) in and out of the canyons from Bonner to Drummond to Ovando to Potomac in his little two-place Citabria airplane every spring since 1988. Bill sees first hand what I document on paper.
Unfortunately, it's what we haven't been seeing in HD 292 that's most noteworthy. The handful of big bulls in that meadow along the North Fork of Elk Creek. The bigger bunch on top of Dunigan. Spikes with the cows and calves in Little Bear. While we continue to set new records for total numbers of elk counted in HD 292, we're not finding bulls in the places we used to. And, try as we might, we haven't made up for these losses with counts of bulls in other places.
The prognosis for the future is not good. Removals of forested hiding cover in the Garnets have accelerated. Even where roads are closed across large areas of elk habitat, such as the Blackfoot Block Management Area (better known to many as the Chamberlain Walk-In Area), research has indicated that bull harvest rates are surprisingly high. I'm hearing more concerns expressed by more hunters who are no longer finding bulls with antlers larger than spikes in favorite haunts. And, this year's Ryan Gulch Firethough quite localized in the area affectedhas dealt yet another long-term blow to elk security cover in late hunting season.
So, what good will a brow-tined bull regulation do?
A brow-tined bull regulation will allow more spikes (i.e., bull elk aged 1_ years) to survive to the following hunting season by making it illegal to kill any bull without a point longer than 4 inches on the lower half of the antler main beam. Such an antler point almost always first appears on a bull that is 2_ years old. In most of HD 292 where spring bull:cow ratios have been hanging around 6 bulls per 100 cows (which is solidly below the minimum objective of 10 bulls per 100 cows in FWP's Elk Management Plan), the result of prohibiting spike harvest will probably double the bull:cow ratio, and in years following good calf recruitment, the ratio might triple. This increase simply reflects the recruitment of spikes that would have been harvested under an any-bull regulation. However, due to low habitat security, a measurable increase in older, mature bulls is not anticipated in HD 292.
Regardless of the potential benefits, I would not be promoting a brow-tined bull regulation for HD 292 if I wasn't convinced that a brow-tined bull season won't cause any harm to the Blackfoot-Clearwater elk herd (HD 285).
What's the connection between HD 292 and HD 285? Well, if a brow-tined bull regulation is enacted along the south side of Highway 200 (in HD 292), it will be a practical necessity to also go with the same regulation along the north side of Highway 200 (primarily HD 283) to avoid confusion and minimize enforcement difficulties. These actions would completely surround HD 285 with the brow-tined bull regulation, focusing an intense spotlight on what would be the only major elk hunting area in Montana west of the Continental Divide and north of Interstate 90 where killing spikes is legal.
Is there sufficient cause to paint an elk regulations bullseye on the Seeley Lake area?
Over time, I've concluded that the answer is no. With winter bull:cow ratios in the low 20s and a good proportion of older bulls, the Blackfoot-Clearwater elk herd ranks among the best in west-central Montana. For this reason, I've been reluctant to tinker with a smooth running population. My primary concern has been that a brow-tined bull regulation would focus all hunting for bulls on the very segment of the population we want to protectolder bulls. I've worried that the result might be a "truncated" age-structure of bulls in the population, with an increase in 2 or 3-year-old bulls, but at the expense of a decrease in bulls aged 4 years and older.
However, my fears have been addressed by check station data from the upper Bitterroot Valley since a brow-tined bull regulation was enacted in 1991. By various measures, it can be concluded that numbers and percentages of 5-year-old and older bulls in the affected populations are holding steady or even increasing. In areas like the upper Bitterroot where habitat security is good, it appears that the effect of saving spikes can be carried through the 3, 4, 5 and older age-classes. We won't expect to see this in HD 292, where habitat security is generally low.
But, in HD 285, there is reason to hope that a brow-tined bull regulation will make a good thing better. I guess I'd be OK with that.
How about you?