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Hunters await elk herd study

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Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is seeking funds to continue an extensive elk study to determine exactly how much the herds are struggling, just as the autumn hunting season opens.

Craig Jourdonnais, a FWP biologist, said the multi-year study is planned in three phases. Now, in its first phase, FWP biologists will collar 25 adult cow elk and 30 calves with GPS collars in Bitterroot Valley management areas.  It will cost $150,000 to purchase the radio collars, detain the elk and attach the collars, as well as to continually monitor the animals.

In August U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy placed the wolf under federal protection in order to cohere with other western states’ wolf management plans. This bans anyone from legally hunting wolves, even though some hunters believe the wolves are solely responsible for the decline.

“There is a lot of concern out there,” said Chuck Oliver, ranger with the Bitterroot Forest Service in Darby. “People are asking where the elk are.”

The FWP study intends to prove whether or not wolves are the only factor to the elk population’s decrease.

In the Darby area, there is definitely a healthy wolf population, Oliver said. Taking that into consideration he said wolves are “only part of the problem elk are facing.”

Public contribution has been fairly lackluster considering how many conservation organizations are involved in the ongoing argument between the hunters and Molloy.

“So far only hunter groups  have come to the table with money helping fund these studies,” Jourdonnais said. “I’m a little disappointed that others haven’t stepped up.”

Jason Widaman, a representative from the Montana Bowhunters Association, said bowhunters support this study because it will show “how predators and ungulates (hoofed animals) coexist” in the environment.

“We should be basing hunting regulations and population objectives on biology and not opinions,” Widaman said.

Montana Bowhunters Association helps fund the elk studies in the Bitterroot through member donations.

The second part of the study will attach radio-transmitting ear tags to calves after they’re born, Jourdonnais said. Finding out what calves are dying from, whether its disease or predators or something else, is key to rehabilitating the herds, or reanalyze the wolves’ effect on elk.

“At the moment we’re having a hard time getting elk calves to survive,” Jourdonais said. The calf-to-cow ratio is especially low in the West Fork management area. In the second area, the East Fork of the Bitterroot, populations are slightly more stable.

A habitat management project is the third and final part of the study.  This includes research into the territory that elk cover, which ties directly into herd health, Jourdonais said.

Jourdanais said hunters will have to adapt to new techniques this season because of a number of conditions that are causing animals to act in unusual ways.

“Lots of changes have happened in the Bitterroot valley in the last 23 years,” Jourdonnais said.

Large-scale fires, growth of invasive weeds, and wolf and human populations are all elements that have influenced the environment in this part of the state, he said. And this makes it hard on the elk.

“The elk don’t have it as easy as they used to,” Oliver said.

The big game animals are accustomed to using riparian bottoms, or waterways thick with vegetation, and open meadows, which are accessible foraging areas. Now roads, people and wolves are in those easy to get to places, he said.

“The fact that you have to truly hunt the animal now is what’s challenging to hunters,” Oliver said.

Hunters will be seeing a number of new restrictions in designated areas.

“We’ve had to restrict the antlerless hunt this year because that group is the real driver of the elk populations and it’s down,” Jourdonnais said. “Hunting in the Bitterroot is setting up to be more difficult than it’s been in the past”

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