The elk aren't just showing up more often around the summit of Mount Jumbo lately - there are more of them.
A good snow year has made Missoula's resident elk herd much easier to spot this winter. And recent surveys confirm the herd has nearly doubled from just a few years ago. While about 50 elk once used Mount Jumbo as winter range, biologists now count more than 90 animals.
"People have been really excited to see the elk this year," said Morgan Valliant, the city's conservation lands manager. "That wouldn't be possible without the closure."
Mount Jumbo's popular hiking trails are closed to the public from Dec. 1 until March 15 for the main mountain, with a longer closure until May 1 for the northern saddle. That gives the elk privacy to graze on the open grasslands along the mountaintop. They've been taking regular advantage of the opportunity, coming out of the trees around sunrise for morning feeding and often again in late afternoon.
In addition to lowering stress on pregnant cows, the closure has had benefits for Missoula's human residents, Valliant said.
"The Grant Creek herd is different from Jumbo's," he said. "It's totally acclimated to people. Those elk are not afraid of dogs. They're in people's yards. Jumbo has been managed more as a wild herd, and they will flee from people."
The Grant Creek herd has been overgrazing its winter range and staying on it longer than normal, according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Vickie Edwards.
"That's always a red flag for us," Edwards said. "We want to keep those elk migratory and wild. But it's true the grass is greener on the other side of the fence."
Predation does not appear to be a factor, Edwards said, because Missoula's elk numbers have been growing since the extremely heavy snows of 1996-97, before wolves were an issue in the area. The only active wolf pack near northern Missoula didn't show up until 2010. It tends to roam the Arlee area and hasn't been reported hunting in the Rattlesnake Wilderness.
"It appears the habitat is working," Edwards said. "Having an undisturbed area for them to spend the winter is extremely important for productivity. And what's really nice about Jumbo is the connectivity of public land. It's a peninsula of public land that's safe, compared to the North Hills and Grant Creek where the important winter range is in developed areas."
The city's effort to reduce noxious weeds and reseed native grasses and wildlflowers also plays a part. Valliant said crews have improved between 150 and 300 acres a year around the hilltop for the past five years. In addition, summer sheep grazing has cut back the leafy spurge infestation. Elk don't eat spurge, but it crowds out the grasses they do like.
"The area the elk hang out in is some of the nicest native vegetation up there," Valliant said. "I'd like to think perhaps we're seeing this increase in the elk herd because the mountain was purchased back in the '90s and preserved for winter range. It's a closure Missoula has embraced and respected. We're giving the elk room over the winter."
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.