Elk populations up in hunting districts north of the Missouri River

Elk populations up in hunting districts north of the Missouri River

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Elk

Elk populations north of the Missouri River have grown slightly since the last survey in 2018.

Elk numbers are over the current population objectives for each respective portion of the Missouri River Breaks.

That's according to February surveys by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks' of elk in Hunting Districts 621, 622, 631, and 632, which are all located north of the river. 

These elk surveys are done on an every-other-year basis in conjunction with bighorn sheep surveys. The surveys for neighboring hunting districts were flown within similar time periods to minimize any issues with elk movements between the hunting districts. To aid in survey quality between their assigned districts, both area biologists began simultaneously at the boundary between HD 622 and 631, Timber Creek, and continued their surveys west and east, respectively.

HDs 621, 622

Malta area biologist Brett Dorak surveyed HDs 621 and 622 over four days, from Feb. 16-19, and totaled almost 26 hours of helicopter flight time. Limited snow made observations difficult, and likely reduced the ability to actively track down individuals and small herds, which may have resulted in some smaller groups being missed.

In HD 621, 776 elk were observed, up 46% from the 2018 survey but 24% below the average of 1,023. There were 47 bulls per 100 cows, which is just under the average of 54 bulls per 100 cows. There were 49 calves per 100 cows, which is slightly higher than the average of 47 calves per 100 cows.

For HD 622 a total of 1,215 elk were observed. This is 7% higher than the 2018 survey and only 2.5% under the average. There were 23 bulls per 100 cows, which is below the objective of 30 bulls per 100 cows. The calf to cow ratio was 35 calves per 100 cows, which is below the average of 46 calves per 100 cows.

“In total, 1,991 elk were observed during this survey, which is a minimum count for elk within these districts,” Dorak said. “Elk numbers observed this year in 621 and 622 are 20% above the 2018 survey, and 20% above the maximum objective level of 1,650 that was set out in the 2005 Montana Final Elk Management Plan.”

For the two districts, the calf to cow ratio of 40 calves per 100 cows is below the average of 47. The ratio of 31 bulls per 100 cows was below the LTA of 45 but is still just above the Breaks Elk Management Unit objective of 30 bulls per 100 cows.

HD 631, 632

Glasgow-area biologist Drew Henry surveyed HDs 631 and 632 over two days, from Feb. 17-18, also via helicopter. Ground cover varied from patchy to complete snow cover in each district, and animals were easily observable.

In HD 631 and 632, 405 elk were observed. This is below the 2018 survey but is 38% above the average. There were 116 bulls per 100 cows, which is well above the average of 56 bulls per 100 cows, and well above the objective of at least 30 bulls per 100 cows for the Breaks Elk Management Unit. There were 57 calves per 100 cows, which is slightly higher than the average of 52 calves per 100 cows.

“With 405 elk observed, we are still slightly above the objective of 300-350 elk that is identified in the 2005 Montana Final Elk Management Plan,” Henry said. “However, there has been a consistent downward trend in harvest in these districts, which is likely due to seasonal distribution shifts.”

As an attempt to remedy some of this distribution issue, a reduction in cow licenses was recommended in HDs 631 and 632 the last couple of years. Also, in the 2020 and 2021 seasons, no 699-00 antlerless elk shoulder season licenses or 698-00 antlerless elk permits will be valid in HDs 631 or 632.

“We heard from many hunters that elk were tough to find during the rifle season in these districts,”  Henry said. “We made these adjustments after the feedback we heard during the season-setting process, and we look forward to seeing how this affects elk distribution and hunter success.”

Other changes

There were a few other changes with elk hunting opportunities as part of the season-setting process:

• The 620-00 antlerless elk archery B license was removed;

• The 621-01 and 622-00 elk B-licenses were made valid during both the archery-only season and general season, instead of just the general season;

• The youth-only antlerless elk B-licenses (621-00, 631-00, and 690-00) were combined into a new 699-01 youth-only license which is now valid in HDs 620, 621, 622, 630, 631, 632, and 690.

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