Hunters with elk permits in the southern reaches of the Bitterroot have reason for hope this year.
For the second year in a row, elk numbers have continued to rebound in both the east and west forks of the Bitterroot.
“It’s shaping up to be a good year in that region,” said Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife manager Mike Thompson. “We had the fourth highest count of elk in HD 270 (East Fork) that we’ve ever had.”
This past spring, biologists counted 4,386 elk in the East Fork of the Bitterroot.
While elk numbers aren’t anywhere near their peak in the West Fork, Thompson said the herd appears to be on the rebound there as well. Biologists counted 985 on their annual flight last spring.
Thompson said there are several reasons for the recent rebound for elk in the southern Bitterroot that start with a dramatic reduction in hunting opportunity over the past few years.
Hunters are required to obtain a permit to hunt elk in both hunting districts.
There was no set limit on the number of permits for hunting bull elk in HD 270 or the East Fork, but hunters did have to apply earlier in the year and give up opportunities to draw a more coveted permit elsewhere in the state.
In HD 250 (West Fork), the state offered only handful of bull permits.
“We’ve backed way off hunting cow elk in both hunting districts,” Thompson said. “We also killed a few more mountain lion and extended the bear season. We have done whatever we could to favor elk.”
In response, Thompson said there has been a pretty good pulse in the numbers this year.
“What we don’t know for sure is how many of those elk were displaced this year from the big Idaho fires that burned last summer,” he said. “That’s something we’ll have to wait and see.”
Hunters looking to hunt in Bitterroot districts further north may want to get to know a landowner or two before the season gets underway.
“A lot of the opportunity further north seems to be on private land,” Thompson said. “We’ve seen quite a shift on where elk are spending most of their time in that part of the valley. It’s probably going to be important for people wanting to hunt there to get permission to hunt on private land.”
Buck mule deer numbers seem to be holding their own this year, but that’s probably temporary.
“The population trend for mule deer is down for reasons we don’t exactly understand at this point,” Thompson said.
Healthy numbers of predators are probably playing a role.
“Mule deer numbers are down generally throughout the west,” he said. “Here in western Montana, we have to wonder how fast they will bounce back. It’s a different world than it was the last time their numbers dropped.
“We have a much higher density of carnivores this time,” Thompson said.
Like elk in the northern Bitterroot, mule deer seem to be faring best in the lower elevations where a mix of subdivision and small agricultural operations make hunting access a challenge.
“There are quite a few landowners who are interested in thinning down the numbers of deer on their properties,” Thompson said. “It will be a matter of hunters matching up with them.”
The recent mortalities of whitetail deer from the disease EHD in western Montana did not impact populations in the Bitterroot Valley.
“We had a spot or two around Lolo where we collected samples that look like EHD, but it didn’t seem to go further south than that,” Thompson said.