STEVENSVILLE - Farmers and ranchers packed a meeting house on Burnt Fork Road on Thursday night to voice their frustration over a growing number of elk that are living in their pastures and hay fields.
And many weren't happy either with the wolves they believe are driving the elk from their traditional winter ranges higher up on the surrounding mountainsides.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials called the meeting to offer advice on keeping elk out of haystacks and to talk about the potential for future joint projects to build wildlife-friendly fences.
Landowners living on the edge of the Sapphire Mountains northeast of Stevensville have been dealing with a herd of nearly 170 elk this winter that ventured down into areas where they had not been seen before.
Several farmers in the crowd of about 60 who attended the meeting said they have been dealing with growing elk numbers for several years.
Some said the elk were putting a huge dent in their farming business, and profit margins are already thin.
Dave Golay said he can spend up to $60,000 in seed and fertilizer to prepare his annual hay crop.
"And then the elk come and eat me off," Golay said. "I'm feeding 150 elk and maybe deer. ... How much do we have to give? It seems like we're already giving a lot more than we should."
Golay said he's been dealing with this issue for three or four years now.
George Bettas said he and his neighbor first saw seven or eight elk show up on their place at the end of Burnt Fork in 2009. This spring, there were close to 40 and by September there were 100 staying an irrigated circle.
The elk are staying most of the year now, including calving season. Up higher on the mountainside, Bettas said it's not unusual to find wolf tracks.
"They are having their calves here now where they're not bothered by predators," Bettas said. "People want to have elk around, but we need to find a way to manage them, too."
Keith Marchuk sounded angry when he spoke up.
"You won't even admit wolves are the problem," he told FWP officials. "You could drive those elk back up into the hills with five helicopters, but they wouldn't stay there. They'd double back and come right back down here.
"Wolves are why the elk aren't going back up there," he said. "Your problem isn't elk. It's the damned wolves."
Rod Knutson didn't disagree that wolves were a problem, but he said some landowners are creating their own set of problems when it comes to elk.
Some landowners - especially those who don't live here full time - have tolerance for large numbers of elk on their properties, Knutson said. While that would be fine if the elk would stay put, he said that's not what happens.
"The elk end up going onto their neighbor's lush crops, who are trying their best to make a living off their land," Knutson said.
FWP's Bitterroot biologist Craig Jourdonnais said the state wants to work toward finding some kind of middle ground that keeps farmers and ranchers solvent while maintaining wildlife populations.
In populated areas, like the Bitterroot Valley, that can be a challenge.
"My job is to look after elk while also understanding how important private landowners are to wildlife in Montana," Jourdonnais said.
FWP regional wildlife manager Mike Thompson said the department will focus on finding ways to make the elk uncomfortable in hopes they will eventually move back into higher country.
To make that happen, Thompson said FWP and local landowners will need to work together.
Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.