Final Decisions Due on Elk
Calves and Land Exchanges

Game Range Ramblin's

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



June 7, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson


Elk aren't the only ones giving birth right now.

We've got a baby of our own coming due.

June 1 is the usual peak of calving season for elk in western Montana. Calves may be born anytime from mid-May through mid-June, at the end of a gestation period that may vary from 247 to 262 days. That places the season of conceptionthe rutin the month of September, though you might hear spike bulls trying out their new bugles already.

It's that time of the year when a drive past the old Dreyer Ranch, about 2-4 miles east of Cozy Corner on Woodworth Road, can make you one of the first impressions that a newborn calf obtains of its new environment. And, the impression that the sight of a fresh calf makes on even the grumpiest human is a very therapeutic one indeed.

But, if you should be so lucky as to come upon a newborn hiding motionless in the tall grass, for goodness sake just memorize the moment, take a photograph if you have your camera with you, and then leave promptly and quietly without touching the calf.

Every year, kindhearted people arrive at Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) offices or at the doorsteps of wardens or biologists, carrying the elk calf or deer fawn that they hoped to save from its natural fate. Unfortunately, in most cases, these good folks have only succeeded in saving the offspring from their mothers, who were feeding or hiding out of sight. When raised in captivity, calves and fawns lose a good part of their natural competitive advantage, and if released back into the wild they often become panhandlers before suffering a fairly quick demise.

The best thing we can do for the elk calves we find is to have a little faith in thousands of years of natural selection and evolution. Let them be.

As for the baby of our own, alas, it is only metaphorical. But, our "baby" is no less important to FWP than newborn calves are to the cows that nurse them. In fact, they are mutually dependent.

FWP's baby is the 50th Anniversary Project to bring 7,800 acres of Plum Creek inholdings within the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range into public ownership. And, by the time many of you read this, a final decision by the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission on Phase II of this project will be only a few hours old.

As I'm writing these words, the Commission is scheduled to rule on Phase II during its meeting at FWP headquarters in Helena on the afternoon of June 6. If the Commission gives its blessing, the project goes to the State Board of Land Commissioners for final action on June 18 in Room 325 of the Capitol Building, beginning at 9:00 A.M. Both meetings are open to the public, and there will be opportunity given for public comment.

FWP personnel and our partners at the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) have been hustling and bustling these past few weeks in preparation for this culmination of a long and challenging process.

The gestation period on this baby has been anywhere from 18 months to almost 9 years, depending on how you look at it. And, there has been morning sickness.

But, the final project, as it will be presented to the Commission and the Land Board, is the best it can be because of the work that went into it. DNRC's acquisition of about 3,000 acres of Plum Creek land in the Game Range, DNRC's exchange of about 2,600 acres in scattered parcels to Plum Creek, FWP's acquisition of about 1,000 acres of key winter habitat in the Game Range from DNRC, FWP's exchange of about 1,760 acres of spring-fall elk habitat on the old Dreyer Ranch to DNRC, and a Cooperative Management Agreement between FWP and DNRC that speaks to cooperative forest management and timber harvest on FWP and DNRC lands in the Game Range, as well as annual compensation from FWP to DNRC for development rights with the intent of working toward a future conservation easement on DNRC lands in the Game Rangethese are important transactions that should not be entered into lightly and should not be easy to do.

It is only with the benefit of a broad base of public input and grassroots support, from the earliest beginnings to the last signatures, that a project like this one ever makes it to a point of final action by the FWP Commission and the State Land Board. And, the public's sweat equity in this baby is beyond my powers to describe.

Now, like the boy approaching a newborn elk, its neck stretched low and motionless against the earth, we've come to the moment of truth. It's time to have a little faith and let nature take its courselet the process work.

But, it's not at all easy!