Growing issues: Local herd facing an uncertain future as housing developments make an impact
Elk hair hangs from the barbs of a wire fence strung across a ridge in Missoula's Grant Creek where elk have crossed the fence. Elk have flourished in the once-rural valley, and the herd has grown in the last few decades to number in the hundreds, so successfully that their continued growth isn't sustainable.
Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Elk tracks crisscross the snow-covered ridge that Bert Lindler is climbing on this chilly winter afternoon.

Lots of elk tracks.

When he reaches his destination - a fence running down the ridgeline's spine - Lindler can't help but grin. The sharp barbs twisted into the top wire are filled with hair. On both sides of the fence, the ground is trampled by what looks to be hundreds of hooves.

"Elk have a way of fixing the fence themselves if they're not quite satisfied," he said. "They didn't seem to have much problem getting across here."

Elk sign, barbed-wire fences, snow-covered ridges. In Montana, that's something most often found in rural settings far from the hustle and bustle of busy city life.

Not today.

From this vantage, Lindler can easily see his home in Grant Creek's Prospect Meadows subdivision, just minutes from downtown Missoula. Looking across the narrow valley, there's plenty of other homesteads scattered about the hillsides.

Certainly it's hard to imagine that this is the winter home of the wily wapiti.

Lindler points across the way - "see there, that meadow" - that's where he captured the image of more than 300 elk on his digital camera last fall.

"For most people who care about elk, this herd is a remarkable success story," he said. "Our problem here is one of abundance Š but the way this herd is growing just isn't sustainable."

There were maybe 50 elk wintering in the Grant Creek area back in the 1980s. Back then, hunters did a fair job of keeping the herd in check.

Hunting opportunities started to disappear in the early '80s when large landowners began subdividing their property.

The creation 25 years ago of the Rattlesnake Wilderness and National Recreation Area gave elk a refuge from all but the most hardy of hunters. A wildlife reserve managed by the National Wildlife Federation above Grant Creek has been off limits to people for years.

On top of all that, elk have discovered the grass-filled hillsides and meadows on the west side of Grant Creek and into Butler Creek, much the chagrin of local ranchers who depend on that feed for their livestock. And they've learned that people living in the valley aren't really going to bother them all that much.

"Since about 1998, we've seen the herd growing at a rate of anywhere from 15 to 17 percent," said Bob Henderson, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist. "For elk, that's huge. We're already getting complaints from ranchers on the west side of Grant Creek."

No one knows for sure just how many elk the area can support. And no one's really come up a good answer on how to keep their numbers in check.

The state has tried late-season hunts, but putting high-powered rifles in close proximity to residential areas is nothing short of a challenge.

"The first year we tried, we definitely had a few problems," Henderson said. "We had too many hunters. Homeowners could look out their windows and see hunter orange all over the surrounding hillsides."

"They saw lots of guys with guns and quite a few got excited," he said. "I couldn't really blame them."

After that, FWP cut back on the number of permits and required hunters to attend an educational meeting before the hunt. Safety zones were also set up around homes.

"I think that reduced the anxiety somewhat," he said. "But we still didn't harvest that many elk. Last year, there were eight harvested in that late hunt."

To just maintain the herd size, Henderson figures hunters need to harvest 50 cows a year.

"I don't think we're close to getting that," he said.

An early hunt in the upper Rattlesnake started this fall, but Henderson said it's too early to gauge its effectiveness.

Hunting does more than just reduce the herd size. It also keeps elk wary.

No one has a clear understanding of just how close the North Hills herd is to giving up on its old habits and settling in as backyard brutes.

Mark Hebblewhite, a University of Montana wildlife biology assistant professor, has seen it happen north of the border.

Hebblewhite worked a dozen years in Canadian Rockies National Park in and around Banff, studying elk and other woodland creatures. During that spell, he spent time with a herd that settled in around town and found the area so comfortable it decided to stay.

"Over about a 20-year period, the elk herd quit migrating in the summer and just stayed on its winter range around town," Hebblewhite said.

In large part, that occurred after wolves re-colonized the area and elk found a refuge from the predator in and around Banff. At first, the novelty of having elk nearby was something visitors and locals enjoyed.

"People thought it was kind of neat and interesting to have that wildlife feature so near," he said. "That changed when people started getting tromped on."

In the course of a year, elk attacks landed seven or so folks in the hospital, including some small children.

Elk were also overgrazing their traditional winter range and a variety of other species were feeling the crunch. After elk chewed willow and aspen to the ground, beaver populations plummeted. Overgrazed wetlands impacted a variety of different birds.

National park managers stepped in and relocated nearly all the elk to another area, where most promptly died.

"It didn't end well," he said.

Hegglewhite sees similarities with Missoula's North Hills herd, where elk are showing up earlier in places where hunters can't go. It takes time for a herd to lose its migratory patterns and there's no way to know for sure if that might happen here, he said.

Hegglewhite's hoping to help put together a study this winter that could unlock some of the North Hills herd's secrets. The plan calls for putting out upward of 30 radio collars that will be used to track elk throughout the year.

With the help of Safari Club International, Henderson has already acquired a dozen radios that will be put out this winter. Additional money is still being sought to fund the university's portion.

"We're trying to raise the money as we speak," Henderson said. "I have high hopes Š the study will help us better understand the elk's migration routes and to what extent they occupy the Rattlesnake wilderness."

In the meantime, Lindler's been busy leading a growing cadre of volunteers who've worked hard to stamp out noxious weeds, remove miles of rusty barbed-wire fence and build wildlife-friendly fence.

"He's certainly taken this elk herd on as a cause," Henderson said. "We're happy to have citizens like him helping wherever they can."

On this hillside above his home, Lindler's quick to point out that homeowners have stepped up and helped eradicate knapweed, leafy spurge and a particularly nasty newcomer, toadflax. They've also helped a neighboring rancher replace a section of barbed fence with one that's more friendly to wildlife.

Other people interested in the future of the herd attend meetings of the Grant Creek Elk Working Group, which Lindler convened.

"How did all this happen? I don't know," he said. "I saw what was happening in my backyard and I thought maybe I could make a difference."

In the end, Lindler said, the size of the elk herd will depend on how much land is available for them. With development pressures sure to continue, he hopes some key areas might be preserved into the future.

Lindler's also convinced the herd needs to be hunted to help control growth, maintain its migratory tradition and retain a wariness of humans.

"I can't have elk camped out at the bus stop when schoolchildren show up," Lindler said. "That's something that just can't happen."

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