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Big Sky and Bozeman area elk count inconclusive

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Bull elk trudge through snow in the Buffalo Horn area during area biologist Julie Cunningham’s flight survey of the elk population. PHOTO BY JULIE CUNNINGHAM

Early season shoulder hunt added near Norris

By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR

BOZEMAN – Wildlife biologist Julie Cunningham took to the sky this February to count elk. During two flights she documented a continued change in herd behavior in hunting district 311 north of Highway 84 near Norris and spotted fewer elk in Gallatin Canyon. Cunningham attributes seeing fewer elk near Big Sky to the timing of the fight.

As a wildlife expert for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Cunningham is responsible for keeping tabs on the greater Bozeman area’s wildlife. She monitors population trends and health, and recommends hunting regulations and objectives.

On a Feb. 13 flight over Gallatin Canyon with pilot Rob Cherot, Cunningham counted 382 elk. During the 5.5 hours they were in the air, they buzzed up and down, drainage by drainage, from Porcupine Creek south to Black Butte, then from Sage Creek north to Big Sky, covering portions of hunting district 310 and 360. It’s the lowest count since 2016.

Cunningham says there were occasions where they couldn’t get visuals on elk, even though they spotted tracks.

“This flight was probably done too late in the season,” the biologist said in her report. “Later in winter if snowpack is heavy, elk tend to conserve energy by staying under tree cover and not moving into the open in response to the noise of the helicopter or airplane.”

Other flights and necessary wildlife capture work caused her to delay the flight until mid-February this year, she added.

“I suspect elk numbers are slowly increasing, but HD 310 is still markedly below the objective of 1,500 elk, and I continue to support conservative management in this district,” she said.

FWP conducted a cooperative flight earlier in February with the Flying D Ranch northwest of Gallatin Gateway near the mouth of the Gallatin Canyon, ultimately documenting elk numbers within the target range of 2,000-3,000. Cunningham flew with pilot Joe Rahn north of Highway 84 from Norris north to Three Forks, while an observer and pilot from Flying D Ranch covered the southern end of hunting district 311 from Highway 84 south toward Big Sky. In all, the parties counted 2,219 elk.

This was the fourth year FWP has worked in partnership with Flying D Ranch to count elk, an effort Cunningham says is valuable for wildlife management as it gives a better picture of elk numbers and distribution, while saving money and flight time.

Cunningham said it’s notable that she continued to observe two separate elk herds in the district. The newer, 800-head Red Mountain herd was documented in 2008 and lives year-round on private land west of the Madison River. It wasn’t described in the 2005 elk plan, which guides how FWP manages elk populations in the state.

The Spanish Peaks herd, which Cunningham counted at nearly 1,400, is documented in the state’s elk plan. These animals live east of the Madison River on the Flying D Ranch and within the Spanish Peaks Wilderness. According to Cunningham, GPS collar data suggests the Red Mountain and Spanish Peaks herds seldom mix.

Since 2009, the Spanish Peaks elk have moved north of Highway 84 onto private land, where they’ve caused crop damage. The presence of the elk near cattle also poses a risk for ranchers, as some elk populations are known to carry the abortion-causing disease brucellosis. More than 1,000 elk frequent these smaller properties and agricultural lands in the winter, Cunningham said.

In 2017, the Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted a shoulder season hunt in the north half of the hunting district to reduce the number of elk on private land and reduce conflict for landowners. During the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s Feb. 13 meeting, commissioners elected to continue the shoulder season for the 2020 hunting season, and added an early season option so hunters can pursue elk on private lands north of Highway 84 from Aug. 15 to the start of archery season on Sept. 5.

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