Milo Burcham leaving,
but elk counts go on

Game Range Ramblin's

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


April 26, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson

Yesterday, somewhere over the Paws Up Ranch, I realized that my return to this particular elk survey marks the end of an era in local wildlife research.

That's because Milo Burcham, the affable, capable, and adventuresome biologist who conducted the annual elk count from Elk Creek to Chamberlain Creek while studying elk and moose in the Garnet Range from 1993 through 2000 has just accepted a position with the Forest Service in Cordova, Alaska.

And, as much as Milo enjoys skimming the treetops in Bill Stewart's little Citabria every April, I thought it might be a little out of his way to continue doing the elk survey for me. So, I got a first-hand view of the Elk Creek population for the first spring in 8 years.

Tuesday was a great morning for it. The dawn was still, the mountains were still covered in snow, and the meadows of the Paws Up Ranch were coming green. I doubt that many elk were absent from their spring roll call.

If memory serves (I leave my notes in the plane until all my spring flights are finished), we counted 182 elk from the Paws Up headquarters at the base of Greenough Hill to the Blackfoot River at Bear Creek Flats. We also noticed a few more elk on the west side of Highway 200, near Roundup, but these don't count in our survey of Hunting District 292.

Maybe I should have taken over for Milo sooner.

The highest count he obtained in the same area was 147 elk in 1994. Although there was a disturbingly low count of 63 in 1998, it was back up to 140 last year.

By my calculations, my eagle eye and experience are worth an extra 20% in our elk data, all things being equal.

Unfortunately for my ego, however, all things are probably not equal. Elk counts on the Paws Up Ranch have been on the upswing since 1998, following some very challenging hunting seasons that resulted in relatively low harvests.

And, changes in ranch management can have a pronounced effect on elk distribution.

This was one of the results of Milo's elk study in 1998. Milo analyzed relocations of radioed elk from the Paws Up herd, which he obtained from 1993-1996, and compared them with relocations collected by others from 1977-1983 from the same elk herd (then known as the Lindbergh herd). Generally, he found an increase in the proportion of his radio-collared elk that used the private ranch in the mid-1990s, compared with the earlier study.

Anyone who drives by the Paws Up Ranch in hunting season already knows that elk bunch up on the ranch to escape hunters every fall. But, Milo's data indicate that the most drastic change in elk distribution over the past two decades has occurred in spring and summer.

Back in the late '70s and early '80s, none of the radioed elk were ever observed or relocated on the Lindbergh Ranch (now Paws Up) in May or summer. However, in the mid-1990s, Milo saw anywhere from 35-100% of his radioed elk on the ranch in spring and summer.

What caused the change in elk distribution between the '80s and '90s?

In his final report, Milo speculated that elk first started using the private land in the early 80s to escape hunting. Over time, they learned to return earlier and earlier in the year, until now we see them on the ranch almost year-round (depending on how hard the winter is).

This spring, I imagine that the late spring, the persistent snow on the lower mountain slopes, and the green grass growing on the Paws Up Ranch were the main factors leading to a high elk count.

Not to mention the unusually high number of bulls we saw.

Again, I'm sorry I have to rely on my memory, but I think we counted 26 bulls and 24 calves, giving a ratio of 20 bulls per 100 cows. That's more bulls than we've seen in this location since I've been around here. I take this as further evidence that elk, even solitary bulls, are unusually concentrated on limited spring greenup this year.

We're sure gonna miss Milo around here, but we'll always have the data he collected and thorough reports he prepared on elk and moose populations in the Garnet Range for reference. And, in this age of the Internet, it won't be so hard to stay in touch.

You can, too. Just look up and see what Milo's up to in the coming months!

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