Helicopter Survey Results
Elk Herd Still Growing
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Game Range Ramblin's

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




January 18, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson


Eight hundred and ninety three!

That's this year's population estimate for the Blackfoot-Clearwater elk herd.

We'll be discussing this latest survey, as well as FWP's proposed hunting regulations for 2001, at our annual meeting at the Seeley Lake Community Center tonight (Wednesday), starting at 6:30.

Now, before you throw stones at our helicopter and computer generated population estimate, you might consider the fact that we actually observed and counted 888 elk in the flesh. Only 5 of the elk in our estimate were fabricated from the mathematical model that Mark Hurley customized for the Game Range in 1989, which corrects for the effects of cover and group size on our ability to find elk from a helicopter.

This year, we conducted the helicopter survey on January 6-7. Due to low snow depths so far this winter, we found elk foraging in open bunchgrass habitats. We saw one group of 457 elk, another group of 152, and others numbering 78 and 85. With most of our elk bunched up like that, and standing out in the wide open, the computer flatly rejected our pleas for more. In other years, when elk were split up in smaller groups under forested cover, the computer model really helped to estimate the numbers of elk we missed, but this year the heartless machine seemed to tell us, "You should've seen 'em all."

And, I'll bet we almost did, save for the usual few raghorns and older bulls that don't migrate all the way to the Game Range when there isn't enough snow in December to move them. At least, that's what we learned from radioed bulls when we were following them back and forth between the Game Range and the Bob Marshall Wilderness in the late '80s and early '90s.

This year's estimate is up 4% from the estimate of 856 elk we obtained last year, and it's up 17% from the starting point of our planned population increase in 1998.

We've made slow and steady progress toward the goal of a base population of 700 adult cows. It's been slow because our calf survival has been consistently poor since at least 1995 (23 calves per 100 cows this year), but it's been steady because Fish, Wildlife & Parks has kept license quotas low for antlerless elk. At this rate, we might expect to see 700 cow elk on the Game Range in 2003.

There are some conclusions that leap to mind, without the benefit of much further thought.

One is that we're still able to maintain and increase elk numbers with a steady presence of 1-3 wolves in the local area over the past year-and-a-half. I still marvel at the fact that these particular wolves don't seem to find that group of 457 elk as interesting as I do, and wonder how much longer they will continue to ignore the dinner bell.

Another is that the apparent reduction in mountain lion numbers, possibly to levels lower than existed when calf-cow ratios were relatively high in the early 1990s, has not been met with a jump in calf survival rates.

Still another is that we had a more successful hunting season in 2000 than in 1999 or 1998. If you check out the graph and data displayed on this page, you'll see that numbers of spikes counted in January 2000 equaled about 50% of the number of calves observed in 1999. Similarly, the numbers of spikes counted in January 1999 equaled about half of the number of calves observed in 1998. It's what you would expect to find if half of the calves are males, and if virtually all the males survive to be counted in the year they are spikes. It's also what you would expect to find if hunters killed relatively few spikes in 1998 or 1999 (as harvest data also indicate). However, spike numbers were down in the 2001 survey, which may reflect the improved hunting conditions and success we enjoyed last fall.

One final bit of explanation. Haywire elk counts on the graph in 1992 and 1997 are explained by a mass exodus of elk from the survey area due to the fire of October 1991, and the severe winter of 1996-97. We didn't attempt a survey in 1994.


I'll close now to save Gary some space to print the graph, and to leave some questions open for discussion at tonight's (Wednesday) meeting at the Seeley Lake Community Center. (I sure hope some folks get the paper this early, but if not, maybe the notice I read in last week's issue will do the trick.)

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