They’re hiding in the trees, on the edge of the city, waiting for the weather that will push them into the open.

“They’re in there now,” Woods Gulch resident Tony Schoonen said of the Mount Jumbo elk herd staging on the north zone of Missoula’s big public hill. “That’s the corridor where they like to move from the Rattlesnake Wilderness through that saddle to the big south face.”

Schoonen occasionally sees 40 or 50 elk on the bare slopes above his house. But they rarely come closer than 400 yards. Unlike the much larger herd in Missoula’s North Hills, the Mount Jumbo herd has retained its wild nature.

Keeping it that way is the goal and challenge of a new plan for managing Mount Jumbo. Residents in Grant Creek and LaValle Creek in Missoula’s northwestern edge already have 600-pound elk rubbing against their fences and grazing on their lawns.

That herd eventually may get so accustomed to human presence it behaves like the elk in Waterton townsite, Alberta or Jackson Hole, Wyo. or Gardiner, where they’ve joined deer and raccoons in the ranks of urban pests.

“We’re just starting to get a few red flags that they’re changing their behavior,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Vickie Edwards. “There are subtle signs the herd may be becoming resident, may stay on the winter range longer in spring, and migrate in earlier.”

Between 60 and 70 elk live between Mount Jumbo and the east side of Rattlesnake Creek and the hills above the Blackfoot River. They’re separate from the more than 400 elk living between the west side of the Rattlesnake and Highway 93. That group used to be two distinct herds — the North Hills and Evaro herds. But encroaching development, human habituation and habitat change has prompted them to combine into one large problem.

“If we hadn’t gone through the experiences with the North Hills-Evaro herd, we might not have seen it in the Jumbo herd,” Edwards said. “The west-side elk are habituated in their response to human activity. Some have become resident year-round just in the last few years. We want to make sure that Jumbo herd doesn’t become like the North Hills herd, or the Banff (Alberta) or Estes Park (Colorado) herds.”

***

The Jumbo elk still keep their distance. Ironically, they’re also Missoula’s most visible because they spend much of the winter on the bare slopes around the mountain’s summit, in plain view of downtown and the University neighborhood. They were a key campaign point in the open-space bond vote to buy 1,800 acres of the mountain in 1995.

Since then, most of the hillsides above Jumbo’s “L” monument and the saddle are closed to the public from December to May so the elk can enjoy their winter range. While that grates on people who want to jog or walk dogs on their public land, the sacrifice has its benefits.

The closure has two purposes, according to Missoula Conservation Lands Manager Morgan Valliant. The obvious one is to reduce stress on wildlife trying to survive the winter and sparse spring landscape. Many cow elk are pregnant over the winter, and drop their calves in May. Getting spooked by hikers and dogs lowers their chance of survival.

“The other side of that, which has been documented across the country, is we don’t want elk getting habituated to human presence,” Valliant said. “As they stop fleeing from humans and dogs, they move into areas that are more developed. And that’s where you have more problems between elk and humans. They stay on their winter range longer, they overgraze it, which hurts other species like nesting songbirds. It trickles down through the entire community.”

That makes managing the Mount Jumbo public lands a tricky juggling act. Consider this: Before the Missoula Valley started becoming Missoula City, Mount Jumbo was virtually bald.

“We think it used to be burned off regularly by Native Americans,” Valliant said. An old stump found in the Woods Gulch area showed fire scars every seven to 10 years – much more frequent than lightning fires could be expected to torch the hillside. Indians probably burned the slopes to improve grazing for their horses and game animals.

The forest groves now present on Jumbo tend to be stands of Douglas fir so dense, little but moss grows beneath them. Those stands are prone to disease and wildfire.

But they also give the elk cover to reach the windswept grazing areas around Jumbo’s summit. So efforts to cut firebreaks or remove bug-infected timber risk exposing elk travel paths.

***

This fall, a small team of volunteers fanned across Jumbo’s slopes searching for poop.

At a meeting of the city’s Conservation Lands Advisory Committee, Valliant displayed a map speckled with dots.

“Each of those little red dots is a pile of elk poop,” Valliant said. “If it was poop, we were mapping it.”

The team recorded 1,243 deposits of elk scat, mostly between the south and north summits above the saddle. Another survey crew will sneak in before the official mountain opening to find evidence of bedding areas as well as scat. The information helps reveal how the elk use the mountain and what places they frequent.

“We found that so far, when we hit a certain elevation, we don’t find any more poop,” Valliant said. That’s good because it means the elk are staying high above most houses on the hillside.

“We need something like a 30-year plan,” Valliant said. “It will take that long to transition from the forest today to something that’s good for elk and has more diversity, that is more resistant to disease and wildfire.”

Meanwhile, FWP has been working on its hunting regulations to manage the elk north of Missoula. Hunting District 283 runs roughly between Missoula and Clearwater Junction, between the Blackfoot River and the Flathead Indian Reservation. It has a population objective of 600 elk. But almost 500 of those are packed into the mostly private hillsides just west of town.

“Hunter opportunities are decreasing, and it’s a challenging area to safely hunt,” Edwards said. “We’re not getting the harvest we need, and the elk have figured it out.”

To counter that, FWP has allowed rifle hunting for some remote wilderness areas to start in September – a month earlier than the general season – to catch some elk before they move close to town. The agency has also authorized a December-January late season for archers who have access to private land. And it uses a game-damage hunt in cooperation with landowners who have elk eating their cattle forage.

But those opportunities only apply to the herd west of Rattlesnake Creek. The Jumbo herd remains a comfortable size far from cattle fields or lawns.

They’re also about to become very popular. The city wants more volunteers to sign up as elk watchers, regularly recording when and where they see the herd on Mount Jumbo this winter.

“We don’t want people to geek out – call in and record sightings every hour,” Valliant said. “We just want them to get in the habit of spending a regular couple of minutes in the morning, afternoon and evening looking. Then take down a note and send us the information occasionally.”

While the Elk Spotters program is open to anyone with a view of Mount Jumbo, Valliant said he particularly needed participants in the East Missoula area. One thing his poop survey found was a high level of use on the mountain’s east face, which can’t be seen from the Missoula Valley.

“We’ve got a lot of eyes on the mountain from Missoula and the Rattlesnake,” Valliant said. “But we know they use the backside above East Missoula too, and that’s the populace we’re trying to engage.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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