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Missoula-area elk herds show dramatic population decline

After counting about 360 elk in 2017 in Missoula’s North Hills-Evaro herds, Montana FWP counted only 290 last year and 146 this year. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)

As the people of Missoula consider their next open space plan, the elk of Missoula might be voting with their hooves.

Liz Bradley knows that counting elk in the spring isn’t an exact science. Depending on snow conditions, elk may loiter in the timber where the Missoula area’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist can’t see them from the air. So when she flies over the local herd areas, she knows the counts she records are minimum numbers. But graphed over the years, they can reveal trends.

Every year, Bradley monitors about seven elk herds around Missoula, in addition to others in the lower Clark Fork. She usually waits for spring green-up – about the time the buttercups are popping up – before taking to the air. This year, with February’s snow, that meant she had to wait until late April.

At the end of the flight, she tallied the counts and saw the numbers for the Evaro herd in the hills west of Highway 93 and those farther east in the North Hills above Missoula. They were so much lower than previous years that she asked the pilot to take her up again, in case she missed some elk.

But the next flight didn’t produce a different result.

She counted 146 elk in the Evaro herd. But the North Hills were empty.

“Of all the areas I fly, this tends to be the easiest,” Bradley told the North Hills-Evaro Elk Working Group on Wednesday night. “But the last two years, we’ve seen two pretty dramatic drops in my counts. I flew it twice, and I flew it twice last year too. I talked to a lot of people but I wasn’t hearing anything from people to suggest that I missed any elk this year.”

The FWP objective for the population in the Evaro-North Hills area is 300 elk, and that’s what the area had between 2006 and 2017. But after peaking at more than 450 elk in 2011, the herds started to slim down, possibly because they’d maxed out the area’s ability to feed them all.

Over the years, FWP has offered more elk tags and late-season hunts in that district, so hunters have been more successful, and that probably explains the slight decline since 2011. The population was over objective for about a decade, which annoyed landowners who had to repair fences and protect hay bales. So having a few less elk is good for landowner relations, Bradley said.

But Bradley has also noticed that cow elk have had fewer calves the past two years, so the next generation isn’t as large.

After counting about 360 elk in 2017, Bradley counted only 290 last year and 146 this year. In two other years, 2013 and 2014, all the elk clustered in the Evaro area, so that could have happened to the North Hill herd this year.

Even so, what could have caused the sudden decline overall? Are elk dying off or have they moved even farther than Evaro?

It’s probably a combination of factors, but Bradley said she thinks many of the elk moved out. But she’s not sure where.

Elk migrate naturally between summer and winter ranges and will leave habitat that doesn’t suit their needs. To avoid that, local conservation groups regularly battle invasive weeds and collect abandoned barbed wire.

Bradley doesn’t know whether the forage is declining, because FWP doesn’t have the money to conduct range studies. Bradley also doesn’t have the money to collar animals to see where they go.

But the elk didn’t likely move to nearby areas, because all of Bradley’s herds saw small declines due to the snowy winter and more successful hunts. The Mill Creek herd to the west lost 15 percent, and the Mount Jumbo herd to the east had about 90, similar to last year.

The biologist who monitors the Blackfoot area didn’t report seeing additional elk.

“They would have had to go north for me to have missed it,” Bradley said. “That’s a question I can’t answer.”

Bradley said she hasn’t spoken with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes biologists, but they don’t count their elk from the air so they may not know of any increases.

One working group member asked whether predators other than humans could explain the loss. Bradley said predators always take a few elk off the top but not enough to explain such a severe decline.

“In the Rattlesnake, we have wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions, we have them all. Anytime you have an environment like that, you’re going to have more impact,” Bradley said. “We’ve had wolves in the system now for several years – that’s not new. If they come to the North Hills, we usually hear about them because it’s so open. But a lot of herds are impacted, and you don’t see that kind of drop.”

FWP is still committed to maintaining Missoula’s suburban herd, Bradley said, and the only thing she can do is control the human contribution to decline.

So even though she knows hunters might be disappointed, she’s proposing to reduce the number of elk tags for the area down to one for this fall and maybe to zero for 2020 if the herd doesn’t rebound a bit next spring. The FWP commission will consider her proposal on June 19.

But other Missoulians can do their part by protecting open space.

“I’m not concerned the herd is disappearing – the population (size) is at the place where it was in the late ‘90s before it took off,” Bradley said. “But we’re very concerned about habitat loss in the North Hills. With development, that could all be houses up there. We’re trying to keep that open space, those working ranches and good wildlife habitat.

“We have all these other species too, the whole picture of wildlife. Ultimately, it’s these partnerships and working with landowners that will keep this working. I think we’re really lucky in this valley to have all this open space.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

Volunteers in the fall carry bags of houndstongue pulled from the North Hills elk area. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)