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.

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(3) comments

Comment deleted.
sukeysafool

LOl, can you even come up with one single original thought, son? Funny how you kept saying and saying and saying that wolves were going to eat all the elk calves and manage the elk blah blah blah blah but now you read something different just like a little first grader and now your story has completely changed. Now because you read a single new story, your story just flip flops 180 degrees. Ahh son, you are about as bright as a bag of dust. You think you won some thing because you keep telling us wolves are here to stay blah blah blah and that your tax dollars got spent and blah blah blah but dont you notice that with every one of these stories, son, that more and more wolves, lions and bears will be killed. No one said we are trying to get rid of them or that there is some contest to rid MT of wolves like you believe but there sure will be less and less son. You don't get it, you blinked and you lost. How many wolves are killed for every legal wolf killed. son? OH wait, elk steaks. Oh wait, wolf managers. Oh wait, anti wild life vermine..LOL!!!!! Oh wait, 1000 wolves in MT. OH wait, wolves in CO. Oh wait.....loL!!!! Poor Richie boo boo bear, can never come up with an original thought.

Ellowe

While I am happy to see the blame, for the much maligned and overly vilified wolf, being pointed in another direction, I get the same uneasy felling that yet another predator species will be hunted to extinction by trigger happy neanderthals and greedy ranchers.

DavidStalling
DavidStalling

This sounds like a good study, and I am supportive of the efforts. However, I hope other factors – such as bull-to-cow rations; numbers of mature bulls in the herd; pregnancy rates and timing among cows; cow-to-calf ratios, and loss of and changes in habitat -- are all considered into the research results, conclusions and recommendations before the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) decides to just reduce mountain lion numbers.

In many elk herds throughout Montana and the West, open road densities; reductions in habitat security and habitat effectiveness; use of ATVs and other advances in hunting equipment technologies; increases in the number of hunters bugling and calling elk during the rut, and other factors can all cumulatively result in increased vulnerability of elk to hunters, particularly among bulls.

This often results in lower bull-to-cow ratios and a reduction in the number of mature bull elk in a herd, which can result in changes in breeding behavior, pregnancy rates and timing among cows; calving and calf survival; and health of calves when they’re born. When the rut is extended and breeding rituals affected by low bull-to-cow ratios and lack of mature bulls in herds the timing of impregnation is affected and calves are born at various times over a longer period of time come spring, rather than mostly being born all at once (known as a “flooding” strategy, which helps makes calves less susceptible to predation), and many are born either before or after the lush, spring growth of grasses, sedges and forbs and so they do not feed and grow as rapidly – all of which makes calves more susceptible to predation.

It’s not always such simple math; there’s a lot of complex factors to consider. Sometimes we human predators cause unintended consequences we want to simplify and blame on other predators, such as lions and wolves. I hope FWP considers all possible factors into its management decisions.

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