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Over 100 elk settle in around homes near Stevensville

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A herd of almost 130 elk have moved into pastures around the upper end of Ambrose Lane northeast of Stevensville. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Craig Jourdonnais hopes they won’t over extend their stay. Photo by PERRY BACKUS/Ravalli Republic

STEVENSVILLE - A herd of almost 130 elk have found a new home along Ambrose Lane.

Craig Jourdonnais hopes they don't get too comfortable.

The elk have been inviting stares and stopping traffic along the road northeast of Stevensville since they first arrived more than a week ago to warily feed in small pastures in among nearby homes.

"I've talked with people who have lived in the area for 40 or 50 years," said Jourdonnais, the Bitterroot-based Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist. "They tell me they have occasionally seen an elk or two in the area, but never this many for so long."

There's plenty of speculation about why the elk have left their normal haunts in the nearby Sapphire Mountains for the heavily traveled valley floor.

"It's always a tough one to know for sure," Jourdonnais said. "It's been my experience that elk are extremely good at measuring predation risks, whether that be humans or large carnivores. They want to be free of teeth or rifles."

To make matters even more enticing for the elk, the ample moisture last fall left pastures filled with lots of green grass hidden under the snow.

"They aren't that much different than us," he said. "When we go out to eat, we look for places that will take good care of us. These elk have found a place where the grass is good and the risk of predation is less.

"They would rather take the stress and inconvenience of being around people over being in a place where they are chased, harassed or eaten."

It's not that unusual for elk in the Bitterroot to take up residence near residential areas. There have been elk living along the river bottom for several years, and there are a few other subdivisions around the county where elk have been a common sight for quite some time.

What has been unusual is that new herds are showing up in places where they've never been seen before.

"That's what raises my eyebrows," Jourdonnais said. "Over the last couple of years, we've seen large groups of elk show up in locations like this after the hunting season is over. So we know it's not driven by hunting."

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Large herds of elk roaming through residential areas bring a whole host of challenges.

While some landowners are intrigued by the novelty of elk on their doorstep, others aren't so happy. There are concerns about unprotected haystacks and broken fences.

Sometimes their arrival can pit neighbor against neighbor.

"The conflict comes when people don't have the similar attitude about having elk out their back door," Jourdonnais said. "There are landowners along Ambrose who welcome the elk and there are adjoining places where landowners have little or no tolerance for them."

The state does have some funding to pay for fencing and other supplies to keep elk out of haystacks. While that program typically focuses on landowners who allow hunting, Jourdonnais said FWP does step in and help landowners in places where public hunting cannot occur in a safe manner.

But that pot of money isn't bottomless.

"We've run out before," he said.

In the long run, Jourdonnais hopes the elk will decide to move back into the hills.

To help them get there, he is asking landowners to open their gates and maybe even drop the top wire off their fences to make it simpler for the animals to move.

"As the winter wears on, these elk are going to become weaker," he said. "If they are still here in March or April, it will be tough for them to jump the fences, especially the calves."

Jourdonnais' big worry is that these elk - and others that move down into the valley during the winter - will decide to stay.

There are examples all around western Montana where elk have simply given up their traditional migratory ways for the ample grass and relative safety of a farmer's field.

"I would really rather not see them get real comfortable over the long haul," he said. "I hope people realize that you can't just turn the page of a calendar and expect them to be gone."

"The longer they stay, the more of an issue it's going to become," he said. "One-hundred-thirty elk have a habit of wearing their welcome out pretty quickly."

Jourdonnais reminded people that it's illegal to feed elk hay at any time of the year.

It is legal to push the elk off your property, but that's a task not always easily accomplished.

Last year, Jourdonnais and others attempted to herd elk back toward the Sapphire Mountains from an area between Corvallis and Stevensville.

"They simply did not want to leave," he said. "There was something happening up behind them in the mountains that they didn't want to return to."

Jourdonnais hopes that landowners will keep communications with him and other FWP employees open through the winter.

"I don't think it will be good for anyone if these elk decide that this is a great place for them to hang out come spring," he said. "Hopefully we can all work together so they don't feel welcome at that time of year."

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300, ext. 30, or at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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