HELENA, Mont. — State wildlife biologists plan to radio collar 50 cow elk in the Missouri River Breaks and track their movements for two years as part of an effort to find out where they go during hunting season.
Officials with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks say that elk populations have been greater than objectives set by the Missouri River Breaks Elk Working Group, which is composed of hunters, landowners and FWP. Even with issuing a "liberal" number of cow elk licenses, their numbers have only slightly decreased in recent years.
During last winter's aerial elk survey in Hunting Districts 621 and 622, 1,935 elk were sighted. Scott Thompson, FWP's Malta-area biologist, said objectives for HD 620, 621 and 622 are between 1,400 and 1,650 elk.
"We have been as high as 3,000 elk at times, so it's come down some but not enough," Thompson said. "Our primary tool to manage elk is with cow rifle hunters."
He noted that while the Missouri Breaks are renowned for their big bulls, there's also a lot of interest in cow elk hunting.
"The drawing rate for cow licenses is 30 percent, so a lot of folks who put in don't get a license," Thompson said. "We've issued as many as 1,100 cow tags between the two districts in the past."
The study will be done in southern Phillips and Valley counties in the eastern portion of HD 622 in the Larb Hills, in HD 621 on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR) and in the western portion of HD 631 on public lands and private property where permission has been granted.
Thompson said while HD 622 has a fairly high proportion of private land that's off limits to hunters, HD 621 is almost entirely open. Still, elk seem to seek out secure habitat where they won't be shot during hunting season, and Thompson said the study should show their movements and help to better understand if they're being harbored on private property or just more difficult to find on public lands.
"Any time you start putting more hunters out there it's affecting the way elk move around," Thompson said. "We are trying to find what percentage are seeking secure habitat or land off limits to hunters."
He added that their elk surveys are done in the winter after hunting season, so this study should also help them better understand where elk are in the fall.
"Comparing these elk movements to private and public land access, open roads, hunting district boundaries and habitat characteristics will shed some light on what the primary factors are that determine elk distribution in the fall," Thompson said. "This information will greatly help us determine management recommendations for future license quotas and hunting seasons."
The plan calls for using a contract helicopter crew to net-gun the cow elk from the air in late January and early February. After the animal has been captured, FWP biologists will check its condition and collect blood samples for pregnancy rates and possible disease exposure. They'll then place both a monitoring collar and ear tag in each elk before releasing it.
Thompson won't be tracking their movement daily. Instead, the radio collars will collect the animal's location every hour in a store-on-board global positioning (GPS) unit. At the end of the study period, biologists will be able to look at elk movements in this part of the Breaks and Fort Peck Reservoir over two years, including two full hunting and calving seasons.
"There's a lot of interest in this in the front end, but the meat of it is at the end when we get the collars back," Thompson said.
FWP will provide project updates through the Missouri River Breaks Elk Working Group and the agency's Region 6 Citizens Advisory Council, both of which meet regularly to discuss elk management.
Nick Gevock, a spokesman for the Montana Wildlife Federation, said on Tuesday that he hadn't heard about the study, but supports the work if it aids in science-based wildlife management.
"If this helps them better manage elk up there and better understand seasonal patterns, we are in favor of it," Gevock said. "We're in favor of good, sound science."
Information from: Independent Record, http://www.helenair.com