STEVENSVILLE – The trackers are now officially on the trail of the wapiti that call the North Sapphire Mountains home.
It took some patience and a little bit of help from the weather, but state wildlife researchers managed to capture and radio-collar the 65 elk they’ll follow for the next two years in hopes of unlocking some secrets of a herd that’s been changing its habits.
The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks researchers fitted all but five of the 45 cows and 20 bull elk they captured with high-tech GPS collars that will provide them with close to real-time information about their locations.
The other five elk were collared with traditional radio collars.
The unusually cold and snowy weather created some challenges for the helicopter crew that swooped in close enough to either net-gun or dart the elk.
“When they got a window in the weather, they were very effective,” said retired FWP biologist Craig Jourdonnais. “They were fortunate in the way the weather set up. It offered them a chance to work with bigger groups of elk that were out in the open.”
Jourdonnais serves as a consultant on the North Sapphire Elk Research Project.
Researchers cast a wide net in their capture operation that ranged from just south of Missoula in the Miller Creek area to just east of Stevensville in Burnt Creek. Another four were collared on the west side of the valley in the vicinity of the ski runs of the now defunct Bitterroot Resort.
The crews also managed to spot a small group of elk on 160 acres of state land on Iron Cap Butte east of Stevensville. They collared four elk there.
“The north Bitterroot offers a very challenging landscape to conduct capture operations on elk,” Jourdonnais said. “Most the land ownership is relatively small. Working on the MPG and Burnt Fork ranches, two of the larger land holdings in the north valley, was a luxury.”
The harsh winter weather also provided a nice cushion of snow for the elk caught in nets or tranquilized to land.
“In a normal capture operation, you normally count on a 2 to 4 percent mortality rate,” Jourdonnais said. “So far, we haven’t lost a single one.”
Once the elk were captured, researchers completed some blood work as well as pregnancy and body conditioning tests.
Lead researcher Kelly Proffitt told Jourdonnais the elk on the east side of the valley appeared to generally be in great condition. The four captured southwest of Lolo didn’t appear quite as healthy.
Researchers will take a hard look at vegetation and other habitat components as part of the study.
Jourdonnais was especially encouraged by the number of bull elk the researchers were able to capture and collar as part of the study.
“There were some nice bulls in the six- to 10-year age class,” he said. “Some of the most encouraging sightings were those from the Three Mile WMA where we ran into several groups of bulls.”
“It’s just one of those quiet, nice little protected areas. No one really knows that much about how elk use it in the winter months,” he said. “In survey work in the spring, I would see little groups of bulls, but nothing like what they saw during the capture.
“It’s nice to see how valuable a place like that can be when things get tough,” Jourdonnais said.
There’s not a lot known right now on how elk currently use the northern reaches of the Sapphire Mountains.
People have noticed that their habits have been changing in the last decade or so. A growing number of elk have given up their migratory ways. Instead, they have settled for a more sedentary lifestyle focused on the greener pastures found in the lowlands, much to the chagrin of local farmers and ranchers.
The two-year study hopes to uncover secrets of the Sapphire wapiti that could help biologists encourage the elk to return to their old migratory habits.
“I think a lot of us think we know where they go and where they end up, but no one knows for sure,” Jourdonnais said. “We don’t know how much mixing occurs between the north and south herds. We don’t know how many go over the mountains in Rock Creek.”
“A lot of this stuff that we learn will be new,” he said. “We have a lot of vegetation work to do this summer. And then we just need to sit back and let the collars work. It will be exciting to see where all that information leads.”