Game Range Notes
by Mike Thompson,
Fish, Wildlife & Parks
For the Pathfinder
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
December 17, 1998
by Mike Thompson
An elk hunter lying on his death bed cries out for a miracle cure. To his family's dismay, he dismisses the priest and the doctor, and places a call to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks instead. "Please, I'm desperate," he gasps, and with his last breath he whispers to the biologist, "Give me a brow-tined bull season."
For the few of you who remain unaware, a brow-tined bull season is an elk hunting regulation that prohibits the killing of spike bulls, or bulls without a four inch or longer antler point stemming from the lower half of either main beam. In effect, it transfers the legal kill to bull elk that are older than two years of age.
The idea behind a brow-tined bull season is to give spikes (1.5 year old antlered bulls) another year to grow and wise up before they are legal to hunt. It has proven to be a popular regulation in several areas of Montana. And, it is often touted as the cure for whatever problems may be ailing elk populations and hunters.
Are brow-tined bull seasons the magic elixir for elk hunting, or merely snake oil? Well, the answer depends on whom you ask and which circumstances you're talking about. Let's talk about the Seeley Lake area, and good old Hunting District 285. For as long as there has been elk hunting in HD 285, it has been legal to kill any antlered bull during hunting season, including spikes.
If you hunted for bull elk in Hunting District 285 in the past two years, it would be easy to conclude that there aren't any. And, you would be partially correct. The winter of 1996-97 claimed many more calves than normal, which severely reduced the number of spike bulls in the population during the fall of 1997. This effect lingered through the 1998 hunting season, and was expressed in low numbers of raghorns, or two year old bulls.
As if that were not enough, the stress of that hard winter on pregnant females also affected the next calf crop, born in the spring of 1997, which severely reduced the number of spike bulls in 1998. With the two youngest - and dumbest - age classes of antlered bulls severely reduced in numbers by that one harsh winter, the hunting season of 1998 was rock bottom for most elk hunters in HD 285.
Expect this to turn around in 1999. Although numbers of two year old bulls will remain low (as the poor calf crop of 1997 passes through the raghorn stage), we should expect a strong increase in numbers of spike bulls in 1999. We'll be able to test this forecast later this winter, when we count calf elk on the Game Range.
Throughout this temporary phase of gloom and doom, however, a ray of light has been shining. The number of bulls aged three years and older has been increasing. In fact, a record high of 67 "older" bulls was accounted for on the Game Range last winter (after hunting season) during the annual helicopter survey, and a total of 111 antlered bulls of all ages was documented. This doesn't include the bulls that didn't make it down to the survey area during the mild winter.
This increasing trend in numbers of older bulls is not surprising when you add up all the factors that have come into play during the same time period. We've experienced some difficult weather and hunting conditions that have favored elk more than hunters in recent hunting seasons. There have been more road closures, some of which were prescribed for elk security, and others that were imposed for different reasons. Hunters have been prohibited from shooting easy bulls on the Game Range with their HD 282 permits since 1990. At about the same time, hunters with antlerless elk permits were prohibited from shooting a bull in the district where that permit is valid. These and other factors in combination surely exert quite an effect on bull survival that we can actually measure every winter in our helicopter surveys.
Do we have a problem with bulls in Hunting District 285? I would say that we do not, if we're able to bring this year's calf crop through the winter, and if the next hard winter is another couple of years away.
Would a brow-tined bull season make things even better? Maybe yes, but at a lot slower rate, and at higher cost, than some hunters might think. We have good enough data to make a pretty realistic projection.
In an average winter, we count 184 calves (7-8 months old) on the Game Range. Of those, roughly half are males, which gives us 92 spikes at the start of the following hunting season. According to Mark Hurley's study of 43 radioed bulls in the HD 285 area, roughly 41% of the spikes will be killed by hunters in the traditional "any bull" season. So, if we have a brow-tined bull season instead, we might expect to save 38 spikes that would have been lost otherwise. So far, so good.
However, a certain percentage of the saved spikes will be lost to illegal harvest. In the Elkhorn Mountains near Helena, a study of radioed bulls revealed a 40% rate of illegal spike harvest under the branch-antlered bull season that was instituted there in 1986. By accounting for expected illegal harvest, the number of saved spikes in our example is reduced from 38 to 23.
If we expect these saved spikes to become old-aged bulls, they must survive the next hunting season, when they are two year old "raghorns." Hurley's data indicates that two year olds may be killed at a 60% rate. Two year old bulls are the teenage boys of the elk population, always on the move and somewhat more prone to making serious mistakes in judgment. By applying Hurley's data to our example, only nine of the spikes we saved would be expected to survive to see their third birthdays.
We haven't even discussed accidental deaths, predation, effects of weather and other natural factors. It's no wonder that brow-tined bull seasons work very slowly, over many years, to make any measurable improvement in numbers of three year old and older bulls.
Personally, I'm concerned about the cost of these modest improvements, particularly in a situation like we have around Seeley Lake where our problems with bull survival appear to be under control. Even after hunters have had several years to adjust to brow-tined bull seasons, intolerable numbers of spikes are still found abandoned in the mountains, killed mistakenly by people who reacted too quickly and couldn't face the consequences of their decision to pull the trigger. Do we need to introduce this problem in the Seeley Lake area in order to manage bull elk? With an increasing trend in numbers of older bulls, I would suggest we do not.
Accordingly, FWP is not proposing any changes in elk hunting seasons for HD 285 in 1999. But, these and other FWP tentative recommendations are open to public comment in the coming months. I hope you'll attend our meeting at the Seeley Lake Community Center on January 12.