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Annual Elk and Deer
Counts Set Records

by Mike Thompson,
author of the weekly Game Range Ramblings
in the Seeley Swan Pathfinder
January 29, 1998

What a difference a year makes.

The usual numbers of elk, mule deer, and white-tailed deer are present and accounted for on the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range this winter, after a one year disruption. That warm breeze you feel is not El Nino, but a huge sigh of relief from Yours Truly.

Good omens appeared within minutes of our liftoff in the Bell-47 helicopter. The first observation in our annual survey was a group of five elk. All bulls. All mature bulls. Then came three raghorns and two older bulls, then another raghorn and four more older bulls. We didn't see our first cow until we had classified 39 bull elk.

This pattern held throughout our survey. At the end of the day on January 12, we had seen 25 raghorns and 59 older bulls, record-highs in both categories. We also set a record for spike bulls. Our tally for 18 spikes was a new record low, a lingering side effect of Mother Nature's temper tantrum last winter. Few calves made it through the winter last year, so few yearling bulls were alive to show off their spikes this year.

Our record high count of mature bulls verifies that elk can make themselves maddeningly scarce in hunting season, as they did last fall, given the right weather conditions and adequate cover.

It was also a good omen to be stirring up deer right from the start. Our total count of 524 mule deer was just below average and the tally of 455 white-tailed deer was a record high in Hunting District 282. This leads me to conclude that we can't rely too heavily on the results of these annual counts to tell us all we need to know about deer populations on the Game Range. I think we can be quite confident that we have fewer deer this year than we had at the same time last year, but conditions for observing and counting them were apparently favorable this year, especially in the case of whitetails. About 100 deer were bunched in the open around a logging operation on Boyd Mountain this year, picking lichens from the fallen tops. Otherwise, these deer would have been scattered in twos and threes under the forest canopy and we would have missed most of them in our survey, like we usually do.

Although we can't view our deer counts as gospel, they do give us cause for optimism. After taking winter's best shot and feeding the lions and coyotes last year, we have confirmed that there are still a lot of deer left standing on the Game Range, and in good enough condition to bring a combined 263 fawns into this mild winter.

As we worked our way down the south face of Boyd Mountain that first morning, snatching glimpses of deer and bull elk from beneath the tree canopy, we found ourselves lifting our eyes nervously toward the horizon and the approaching grasslands of Blanchard Flats. Would we find the big herd out in the open, or would we be left to wonder if more elk died last winter than we originally thought?

We were left to wonder for longer than I liked. There were no tracks across the upper edge of the open grassland, where we had often seen hundreds of elk in years past. We finally saw the first few sentinels on a steep, open hillside known as The West Face, accurately if not cleverly named by Mark Hurley during his graduate study in the late 1980s. We worked our way to that location and found 597 elk clustered around the base of the Face. This was the main cow-calf group of the herd, and although we had plenty of ground left to survey over the next 24 hours, we had answered our most pressing ques tions in a few minutes of focused and practiced activity.

All's well with the Blackfoot-Clearwater Elk Herd.

By the end of our survey, we had counted 744 elk in Hunting District 282, and because most of those were out in the open, our much ballyhooed computer model thinks we only missed 15 ani mals. The resulting population estimate of 759 is almost identical to the population estimate we obtained in February 1995, which indicates that the Winter of 1997 set us back by about three years relative to FWP's schedule for a steady population increase. This is partly reflected in a record low count of calves this year, probably due to the stress of last year's hard winter on pregnant females. With the benefit of a year off from nursing calves, and considering the past wet summer and this winter's late arrival, with mild weather as well, most cow elk should be fairly bursting with exceptionally healthy, heavy calves in a few short months.

For now, life is good on the game Range, and in the office of your Game Range manager.

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