Elk and mule deer need to move with the seasons, but human influences are making migration and winter survival more difficult. Some conservationists are working with the Lolo and Bitterroot national forests to ensure seasonal ranges and migration corridors are a priority.

Last week, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a national sportsmen’s organization focused on conservation and wildlife habitat, published a report summarizing the status of all the elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep herds on the Lolo and Bitterroot national forests and the challenges the herds face while trying to maintain their historic migration routes.

The report is intended to help the national forest managers as they prepare to revamp their comprehensive national forest plans.

“It’s a heavy lift for the Forest. But they’ve committed to it,” said Scott Laird, Montana TRCP field representative. “We’re in touch with the forest routinely, and they knew this report was coming. We’re just continuing the drumbeat.”

The Lolo National Forest is set to begin revising its 36-year-old plan this year, and it’s obviously been a long time in coming, although the Forest has amended parts of its plan through the years. Lolo NF supervisor Carolyn Upton has said she was waiting for other nearby forests, including the Flathead, Helena-Lewis and Clark and the Nez Perce-Clearwater, to finish their plans.

Laird said his organization has already worked with some those other forests on their forest plans to try to preserve ungulate habitat and migration corridors.

“The Helena-Lewis and Clark particularly, we were engaged at the front end of that. They have some pretty good provisions in that plan. None of them are perfect. But they did a really good job of taking public comment and they embedded those priorities into their plan,” Laird said.

Now that it’s the Lolo National Forest’s turn, TRCP is providing forest managers with a lot of information that either didn’t exist three-dozen years ago or wasn’t as much of problem when Montana had fewer than a million residents. They’ve included similar information for the Bitterroot National Forest, but the Bitterroot Forest plan isn’t scheduled for revision for another few years.

“There’s so much new information out there now that wasn’t there in the ‘80s. GPS collar information – now we know exactly where these animals go,” Laird said. “We need to update these things, because conditions on the ground have changed, and they’re continuing to change right in front of our eyes.”

Using data from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, scientific journals and local groups such as the Blackfoot Challenge, the report looks elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep herds in three main regions – the Blackfoot-Clearwater, the Missions-Rattlesnake and the lower Clark Fork – and identifies the problems that have arisen or are getting worse in each area. Such problems include high road densities, illegal recreational vehicle use, migration barriers such as highways, vehicle collisions, invasive weeds, and increasing habitat fragmentation.

“It’s mainly the explosion of recreation and development that is probably the worst,” Laird said. “Coming out of this pandemic, we’ve never seen such an influx of pressure on the forest and surrounding areas. You can’t hardly find a campground anymore. Everything’s getting built on. These animals need to move from seasonal range to seasonal range, and this development pressure can disrupt all that.”

One prominent example of elk winter range is Mount Jumbo, where elk can be seen grazing the high slopes when the city of Missoula closes the mountain to recreation. The southern end was scheduled to open March 15, but the city recently extended the closure until March 23. FWP Wildlife Biologist Liz Bradley said the elk need extended protection from human and canine disturbance because they are coming out of the harsh winter in poor physical condition. The closure on the northern end goes until May 1.

Even so, sometimes people can be seen hiking the Mount Jumbo trails when they shouldn’t. An increasing number of recreationalists put similar pressure on elk across the forest.

Elk get a lot of attention, but mule deer and bighorn sheep face tougher challenges. Bighorn sheep herds are often small to begin with – 100 to 300 sheep per herd - because they can suffer die-offs from disease. Those that survive face the danger of getting hit by cars as they lick salt off the roads or cross to water sources.

The mule deer population is larger – around 14,000 animals in Region 2 – but while some herds are stable, others are dwindling. FWP population estimates that mule deer populations in Region 2, which includes most of the Lolo National Forest, have declined 27% between 2011 and 2021. The cause isn’t certain, but it’s partially due to poor habitat.

“We need these conditions to improve to face the challenges ahead. Mule deer are probably the trickiest one. There’s degradation of quality winter ranges. They come into the spring in poor condition and may not fawn successfully,” Laird said.

After identifying the problems, the TRCP makes six recommendations to preserve habitat on the national forests against future challenges. They include using GPS collar data to identify winter range and migration routes and then establish management areas to conserve the habitat; develop standard to limit road density and manage both motorized and non-motorized recreation in those areas; manage invasive weeds and improve forage on winter range; and prioritize land acquisition to maintain and improve wildlife corridors and reduce habitat fragmentation.

Forest plans are important because they provide critical guidance for managing a forest that lasts a couple decades, but the public needs to stay engaged and ensure that managers follow the plan. For instance, a judge recently ruled against the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest because it failed to follow its guidelines to preserve elk habitat near Lincoln in favor of a logging project. It allowed too many roads and kept too few trees for elk cover.

Elk need secure habitat that’s at least 0.6 miles from a road. If the road density is too great – roads are only 1 to 2 miles apart – that leaves no place in between for elk to be secure.

The Bitterroot National Forest was recently sued for a similar logging project in the Sapphire Mountains that may exceed the recommended road density for elk and maybe didn’t analyze elk habitat properly.

The TRCP wants to make sure the Lolo National Forest has good guidelines in place from the start and hopes hunters and anglers will get involved in the multi-year process.

The Lolo National Forest just put its Monitoring and Evaluation Report out for public comment until April 6. The monitoring information will be used to help write the new forest management plan. The TRCP hopes its report will also be used.

“The land-use planning process is where the rubber meets the road in terms of incorporating new science into the management of our public lands. Sportsmen and sportswomen see the upcoming plan revision for the Lolo National Forest as a critical opportunity to maintain and improve some of the best hunting and wildlife habitat in western Montana," Laird said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.