Montana Begins Elk Study in Bitterroot Valley
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) will begin a study this week that will evaluate factors affecting elk calf survival in the East and West Forks of the Bitterroot Valley.
The number of elk calves surviving from birth through their first winter has declined throughout the Bitterroot Valley since 2004, and biologists have documented an overall elk population decline in the West Fork. Decreased calf to cow ratios and population declines are raising concerns that increasing numbers of wolves, mountain lions and black bears may be reducing elk populations and hunter opportunities in the valley.
To help answer the question of exactly what role predation plays, in combination with other factors that limit elk populations, a team of field researchers will hit the ground this month. The crew plans to capture 40 cow elk by helicopter, evaluate their nutritional condition and pregnancy rates, and outfit them with radio-collars. Researchers will then monitor the radio-collared elk throughout the year and investigate causes of death.
The radio collared cow elk will also lead the researchers along migration routes and to calving grounds so that FWP can locate and radio-tag newborn elk calves in the spring. Researchers hope to monitor these radio-tagged calves to record mortality rates by time of year and location and to investigate causes of death.
Dr. Kelly Proffitt, FWP Research Biologist, is the project leader, and local FWP Biologist, Craig Jourdonnais, will be closely involved. Dr. Mark Hebblewhite of The University of Montana is a partner in the research.
Mike Thompson, FWP Region 2 Wildlife Manager, says that reduced calf survival and elk population declines raise concerns that increased predation is having an additive effect on elk survival in the valley. "The issue of balancing large carnivores and prey such as elk is a priority issue for FWP across Montana, and hopefully this study will help us and others improve our management."
High predator densities and wolf recolonization are relatively new challenges for elk management in most western states, and understanding the role of predation, in context with other factors affecting elk populations, has the potential to provide valuable insights for wildlife managers and biologists across the Rocky Mountain States.
The study will be replicated in 2012 and 2013 to identify patterns or changes that may appear from year to year if funding can be secured. Funding for the first phase of cow capture and monitoring will be provided by FWP, a US Forest Service RAC Grant, the University of Montana, Ravalli County Fish & Wildlife Association, Montana Chapter of Safari Club International, Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, Montana Bowhunters Association and a collection of other private donations. And, on January 31, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation awarded the project $30,000, which will enable calf capturing and radio-tagging to begin in the spring.