by Mike Thompson
Game Range Columnist
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
May 21, 1998
The time is upon us when your local biologist will be proven to be a qualified and experienced professional, or exposed as just another quack with an opinion.
It all hinges on this season's crop of elk calves, and if they haven't begun dropping by now, I'm staring at a feast of crow and false predictions.
Of course, students of elk biology know that the peak of calving normally occurs on June 1. However, I've predicted a bumper crop this calving season, and early calving is a good first sign.
Credit the hard winter of 1996 for this year's exceptional calf crop, if FWP predictions are correct. It was the winter that keeps on giving.
We blamed the hard winter of 1997 for taking about half of the 1996 calf crop in the Game Range elk herd between February and May 1997. We blamed it again for an extremely poor calf crop in 1997, as reflected by a record low count of 12 calves per 100 cows in January 1998. Now, we credit the hard winter of 1997 for an unusual set of circumstances that should yield calves by the bushel.
If not for the winter of 1997, and the stress on pregnant cows that caused most of them to lose their fetal or newborn calves that spring, there would have been no vacation from nursing and calf rearing last summer. It was this unscheduled rest and relaxation for breeding-age cows that set the stage for a strong calf crop to be born as you read this.
The last three months of pregnancy are widely known to be an energy draining period for cow elk, but milk production for nursing newborns through the summer demands even more energy. FWP surveys from last January indicate that most of the 1997 calf crop was lost before the 1998 winter, and research from other elk herds indicates that these losses likely occurred immediately before or after birth. That means adult cows were not subjected to the stress of milk production in the summer of 1997, and could selfishly replenish their own fat reserves instead.
The only thing that could have been better for this year's calf crop would have been an exceptionally strong El Nino.
Well, I guess you know the rest. If we can credit El Nino for the wet, productive growing season of 1997, and the mild winter of 1998, then we can credit El Nino for helping fatten our cows through summer and conserving their energy through winter. The result should be the best calf crop we've seen around here in years.
The best calf crop we've documented on the Game Range since we began intensive monitoring in 1989 was indicated by a ratio of 46 calves per 100 cows in the winter of 1993. With little more than circumstantial evidence, I have argued that this unusually high calf crop was also the product of unusual environmental circumstances that were put into motion by the Game Range fire of 1991.
Will we see 50 calves per 100 cows in January 1999?
It's possible. This year's calves, born of exceptionally fit cows, should arrive early and heavy. These advantages of timing and size will help more of them escape predation by bears during calving season. Also, with few yearling cows in the population (due to last year's awful calf crop), non-breeding females will make up a lower percentage of the cow count in our winter calf/cow ratios.
With my reputation on the line as a foreseer of natural events, it's frustrating to wait until winter for validation. However, it's nearly impossible to obtain reliable counts of newborn calves under the cover of dense vegetation when elk are scattered across their summer ranges. We'll have to wait for them to bunch up in the open next winter, when the truth will be revealed.
Until then, we'll start stockpiling excuses and watching for adverse phases of the moon, just in case. You can snatch a sneak preview of this year's calf crop by driving Woodworth Road through the old Dreyer Ranch (east of Kozy Korner) during the late evening hours.