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020913 elk

Elk graze on a hillside near Lolo in 2011. While winter range for elk has garnered plenty of attention in recent years, new research may show that the importance of summer range has been undervalued.

The Rattlesnake Valley elk herd has spent a lot of this winter hanging around the summit of Mount Jumbo while humans down below debate what they need to survive.

And that debate has taken some odd twists lately. Years spent securing winter range like Jumbo’s slopes may have obscured a more important need for good summer forage. More controversially, there’s growing evidence that if we want more elk, we may need more logging.

Neither of those ideas factor into a big-game security amendment now up for public review in the Helena National Forest’s Blackfoot Travel Plan. But that amendment would uproot 27-year-old rules for protecting elk in hunting seasons.

“We’re expanding the conversation about what elk need,” state Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife manager Mike Thompson said of the new research and policy concepts. “It’s not that you don’t need winter range. But the importance of summer range has been undervalued.”

Research coming out of captive elk herds in Oregon and Washington has painted a new portrait of productive elk habitat, according to University of Montana biologist Mark Hebblewhite. The changes have almost as much to do with the passage of time as they do with fresh observations of elk behavior.

“At the time when a lot of forestry was going on, elk did need places where they could hide,” Hebblewhite said. “Back then, there was lots of forage, but there wasn’t as much mature forest cover for animals.

“Jump forward 20 years, and there’s almost no logging going on in national forests, and we’ve seen a huge reduction in the amount of wood coming out. As the forests have grown older, there’s plenty of places to hide, but not much to eat.”

Elk eat grasses, wildflowers and other forbs that grow best in prairies, meadows, and recently cut or burned forest areas. While they need places in winter where the winds scour snow and ice off the ground (like the summit of Mount Jumbo), they won’t make it to winter without good summer grazing.

“Everybody thinks it’s really great to be an elk in June,” Hebblewhite said. “But that’s when peak lactation (for nursing calves) is highest. If the forage isn’t there, they can be starving in summer. And then the key comes in August and September, when they’ve stopped nursing. Adult females have two months to get back to 10 percent body fat so they can reproduce in fall. That recovery time is when they need to access high-quality forage before they go into winter.”

Studies in Yellowstone National Park have found those summer ranges drying out 20 percent to 30 percent earlier than just a few decades ago as the Rocky Mountain region’s climate has warmed. That’s made it harder for calves to bulk up between weaning and winter.

“If people want more elk, one way to do that is to improve habitat,” Hebblewhite said. “Fire does that, but there’s only certain places we can do that. And July is often best time to burn, when nobody wants more fires and smoke.

“Then there is a role for logging, potentially,” Hebblewhite said. “That’s going to be a tough pill for some environmental groups to swallow.”

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Michael Garrity of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies would agree. Fresh from defeating Custer National Forest officials over a logging plan that would hurt elk habitat, Garrity said the U.S. Forest Service would continue to lose lawsuits if they refused to follow the latest science.

“When they log, it reduces hiding cover and adds roads,” Garrity said. “Elk stay away from roads, and you need roads to log. When they say opening the canopy lets more grass grow, they never found that was a problem that elk didn’t have enough forage. Besides, logging introduces weeds, and elk don’t eat weeds.”

Logging would open new space for elk forage to sprout. However, FWP’s Mike Thompson said it takes very specific logging to make an elk happy. Cutting north-facing slopes can actually cook off the plants adapted to the shady forest cover. Clearing south-facing hillsides can boost early-spring grasses and flowers, but can speed up late-summer drying.

Logging was the enemy when many national forests set up elk “hiding cover” standards in the 1970s and ’80s. One measurement gauged if the tree canopy obscured at least 40 percent of the sky, as measured from the air. Another checked whether there was enough foliage to hide 90 percent of an elk from an observer 200 yards away. Forest Service workers would actually carry a poster into the woods and record how much they could see.

Mountain pine beetles have literally chewed a hole in those benchmarks. The Blackfoot’s 1986 hiding cover standard combined the number of road miles per square mile with the tree thickness measurements. Today, only two of the eight elk herd units in the Upper Blackfoot River drainage have enough trees to meet the Forest Service’s 1986 hiding cover standard.

“Big game security, under the Forest Plan, will not improve in the foreseeable future, because hiding cover will continue to decline as trees killed by the ongoing bark beetle epidemic begin to fall over the next few years,” the Helena National Forest’s proposed travel plan amendment stated. One of the proposed plan’s alternatives closes 190 miles of road but still doesn’t meet the old standard, according to amendment biologist Deborah Pengeroth.

So the new goal is “security cover.” That’s hard-to-reach country, especially big blocks of unroaded country. Based on research developed in the St. Regis and Philipsburg areas, the idea is to have lots of 250-acre or larger parcels that are at least half a mile away from an open road during the big-game rifle season (Oct. 15-Nov. 30). That includes roads that might be open the rest of the year but can be closed during hunting season.

Pengeroth acknowledged there are several problems with that standard. First, 250 acres of forest around St. Regis might not support the same-size elk herd as 250 acres around Lincoln. Second, closing roads during rifle season might miss the impact of surging numbers of archery hunters who start prowling the hillsides in early September.

Both those issues are open to improvement during the 90-day public comment period that ends in late April. Neither addresses the forage question.

“The reason we have this standard is to get some bulls through the hunting season so they make more elk for the next season,” Pengeroth said. “It’s focused on elk vulnerability during hunting season. The forage component may appear in other parts of forest plan at the vegetation management level where we can consider the new science.”

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That’s frustrated amendment critics like Steve Platt of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He said lack of hunter involvement in the new standard drafting was going to give poor results for both hunters and elk.

“The main thing we have to deal with is travel management,” Platt said. “I know the public gets riled up when they can’t drive where they always have or where they can get to now. But four-wheel-drives are more powerful than they used to be, and the problem is elk are getting pinched. So they head for places people don’t bother them, which are generally private lands off the forest. And that creates problems for landowners, because they’re hard to get to from a public standpoint.”

FWP biologist Jay Kolbe hopes the new standards can address another critical factor in elk management. The Blackfoot Travel Plan area supports about 1,200 elk during the fall. But just 10 of every 100 is a huntable bull. FWP standards want to see at a bull-cow ratio of at least 15-to-100.

The factor that might best protect those bulls is the size of the security cover blocks far from roads, Kolbe said. And studies of the Blackfoot area indicate 250 acres might not be big enough to keep elk safe from motorized hunters. Making those blocks bigger also could keep the elk from harboring on private land. Kolbe added that the hunting timeframe needed to start in September with archery season, not October’s rifle season.

Much of the elk country in the Blackfoot drainage around the Lincoln Ranger District got its roads from mining, rather than logging. The Forest Service must evaluate those roads based on their impact to public recreation, grizzly bear and bull trout survival, water quality and other factors, as well as elk. The Blackfoot travel plan will guide how many hundreds of miles of roads stay open or closed.

“The Forest Service needs to make a resource-based call,” Platt said. “If we’re going to have more liberal access, it’s going to mean less liberal elk hunting. They’re going to piss a lot of people off, regardless what they do. This travel management stuff is tough.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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