DARBY - Efficiency comes with practice.

In the mountain meadows on the southern edge of the Bitterroot Valley, wildlife researchers were all about being efficient as they stalked tiny elk calves hidden away by their mothers over the past couple of weeks.

Using skills they’ve perfected over the past two years, they managed to sneak up on more calves than ever this spring.

By Thursday evening, they had captured and ear-tagged 81 as they entered the final leg of an intensive three-year study looking at elk/predator dynamics in the southern reaches of the Bitterroot.

“We’re ahead of schedule this year,” said Mark Hebblewhite, the University of Montana assistant wildlife biology program professor leading this portion of the study. “The first year we went to June 10. We’ve become more efficient as we’ve learned more about this population of elk.”

Two of the calves had already perished.

“Once those calves begin leaving their hiding places, we usually see mortality increase,” Hebblewhite said. “A general impression is that calving may have been a little bit earlier this year.”

Researchers are learning that elk change habits as they adapt on an annual basis to ever-changing weather patterns and other environmental shifts.

The three-year study is a cooperative venture between the university and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Much of the cost has been borne by a number of conservation and sportsmen’s organizations.

Plans call for it to conclude next June. FWP’s lead researcher, Kelly Proffitt, expects that final study won’t be published for a least a year after that.

With two years of information already compiled, researchers have uncovered a good deal of interesting facts about the Bitterroot elk herd and the animals that prey on them.

When the study first began, Hebblewhite said he and many others had a hunch that wolves were playing a large role in the elk calf mortality that was driving down the overall elk population in the east and west forks of the Bitterroot.

After two years of tracking down the causes of calf mortality, a much different scenario developed.

“Before this all started, there were a lot of people saying this study was stupid,” Hebblewhite said. “They said everyone knows the answer already to what is killing the elk. They were wrong. It wasn’t wolves. It was mountain lions.”

“It does show that sometimes research can be useful,” he said. “Even in my own mind’s eye, I thought it was probably wolves before we started this study. It was a good lesson on what wildlife managers need to proceed.”

“They need science to back up controversial management decisions,” Hebblewhite said. “It will be nice to have the numbers in hand.”

FWP responded to the early information that suggested that mountain lions were playing a large role in elk calf mortality by both making management changes and authorizing a lion population study last winter.

Houndsmen spent over 700 hours and traveled more than 6,000 miles in hunting districts 250 and 270 to tree lions and collect DNA using hollow darts.

“We’re just now starting to see some lab results back from that study,” Proffitt said. “We know now there are more mountain lions out there than what people initially thought.”

The final laboratory results are expected to back sometime this summer. That will provide the state with a solid estimate on lion numbers in the area, which will be important as the state looks at new management quotas.

“The timing was important,” Proffitt said.

FWP is looking at the potential of reducing the number of mountain lions by 30 percent in the Bitterroot in an effort to boost elk production.

Proffitt said the hopes are that researchers will return in four or five years to perform another lion population study in an effort to quantify the success of the new management methods.

No one is saying that elk aren’t on the menu for wolves.

One research intern was assigned to carefully dissect 133 wolf scats in an effort to find and identify five strands of hair inside each piece. While it wasn’t possible to tell if the hair belonged to a white-tailed deer or a muley, the researcher could determine the species and age.

That research found the diet of wolves in the East Fork was comprised of 61 percent adult elk, 20 percent juvenile elk, 7 percent adult deer and six percent adult moose.

In the West Fork, adult elk comprised 39 percent of a wolf’s diet. Another 33 percent were juvenile elk, 11 percent juvenile deer and 8.5 percent moose.

That leads to the question that if wolves depend so heavily on elk to survive, why aren’t the numbers of their kills higher percentage-wise in the total elk mortality statistics.

It all comes down to a numbers game, Hebblewhite said.

On the landscape, wolves exist at about five to 15 animals per 1,000 square kilometers. For the most part, wolves hunt, kill and eat as a pack.

On the other hand, mountain lion numbers can exist at between 20 to 40 animals per 1,000 square kilometers. They are often solitary hunters and don’t share their kill with other lions.

“It just comes down to pure, simple math,” Hebblewhite said.

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.