Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is teaming up with the University of Montana to study how elk survive in northwest Montana and what role predators and people might play.

FWP biologists are starting a multi-year project monitoring elk, wolves, black bears and mountain lions along the lower Clark Fork River. They’ll work in Hunting District 121, which surrounds the river from Thompson Falls northwest to Heron and the Montana-Idaho border.

“We are hoping to better understand elk population dynamics in northwest Montana by studying the top-down influences like predation and the bottom-up influences like habitat,” said FWP research lead Kelly Proffitt in a release.

Elk are a popular game animal that biologists and hunters want to conserve. In some areas of Montana, elk are so abundant that some landowners complain about too many. But fewer elk roam some of the wooded, mountainous regions of northwestern Montana. Some hunters blame wolves and have tried to justify more liberalized wolf seasons to “save the elk.”

But there’s little proof of that. Wildlife biologist Neil Anderson has testified that elk recruitment is historically low in northwestern Montana, partly because some areas have substandard habitat for elk. For that reason, FWP Region 1 doesn’t conduct many annual elk counts, so the elk abundance in northwestern Montana is not well documented. HD121 was likely chosen for this study, because it’s one of the few areas that’s been counted consistently.

According to an FWP Spring 2018 Region 1 survey report, “Hunting Districts 103, 121, 140 and 150 are priority herds that FWP staff try to fly annually. Other districts — HDs 100, 101/109 (flown in conjunction), 123, 124 — are flown when funding and helicopter availability allow.”

In addition, Proffitt was involved in a study in the Bitterroot Valley that is similar to the one being undertaken in the lower Clark Fork region. Before the study, some hunters in the Bitterroot claimed wolves were killing all the elk in the Bitterroot, but the study showed mountain lions played a bigger role in calf deaths.

“Although our results regarding the important impacts of carnivores on elk populations through effects on calf survival are generally consistent with previous carnivore-elk studies conducted in the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA) of southwest Montana, our results differ in that the primary predator of elk in the Bitterroot Valley was mountain lion, rather than wolves or bears,” the study concluded.

When it came to adult elk survival, habitat quality was the driving factor and played a bigger role overall, particularly around the West Fork of the Bitterroot where summer range forage is limited.

That is the kind of information this study intends to produce.

This winter and spring, the goal is to catch 60 elk, 10 mountain lions, 10 bears, and five wolves and fit the animals with GPS radio collars to track their movements. Biologists will use helicopters and ground traps to capture the elk.

To learn more about where and how animals are using the landscape, motion-capture game cameras will also be deployed to collect observations of wildlife for abundance estimates.

Throughout the study, researchers will evaluate population numbers and identify different causes of elk mortalities. Cow elk will also receive implants that detect when and where calves are born, so biologists can capture and collar the young animals for tracking survival and mortality rates.

The project will also study human impacts on elk. To study the effects of timber management on elk habitat and distribution, researchers will survey the types of forage and forested habitats that the elk use throughout the year. They’ll also try to better understand how hunting pressure drives elk across public and private land throughout hunting season, although most of HD121 is national forest.

The University of Montana researchers are probably part of the Hebblewhite Lab in the W.A. Frank College of Forestry and Conservation. Mark Hebblewhite specializes in ungulate conservation and was a contributing author on the Bitterroot elk study published in 2015.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at