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Water Wisdom: Adopting a herd mentality

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During the seasonal closure from Dec. 1 to May 15, users are required to remain on official U.S. Forest Service system trails, marked in green. MAP COURTESY OF MONTANA FISH, WILDLIFE AND PARKS

By David Tucker EBS Contributor

On Nov. 5 and 6, 2020, an unprescribed, wind-driven wildfire burned 650 acres of the Gallatin Wildlife Management area adjacent to the Gallatin River just south of Big Sky. When the smoke cleared, left behind were the charred remains of riparian vegetation. Among the remains, dozens of elk bones. 

While the animals hadn’t burned in the fire, the blaze revealed the extent to which elk feed in the area. Anyone who’s spent time in Big Sky has likely noticed the large herd of elk that winter in the Porcupine drainage, sometimes coming to the river’s edge to water, and sometimes crossing Hwy. 191 entirely and venturing into the ever-developing Gallatin Canyon neighborhoods. The Porcupine drainage is vital winter range for this herd, and November’s wildfire destroyed much of their food source. 

In early January 2021, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks along with the Custer Gallatin National Forest decided to monitor elk behavior within the Porcupine drainage during their annual flight count. The agencies wanted to see how elk were responding to the burn, given that they were likely under additional stress due to lack of readily available vegetation.

From fix-winged aircraft, agency biologists scanned for elk from the air, making note of sign such as hoof prints in the snow. In the burned unit, they saw just six elk. In an adjacent, unburned unit, they counted 110. 

While it’s likely that this larger herd had been moving through the burned unit based on the sign biologists saw from the air, it was clear that the unburned unit has been doubly important for the Porcupine elk this winter. 

But another factor complicates this story—the human factor. The Porcupine drainage sees a lot of consistent recreation traffic all winter long, and hikers, skiers and dog-walkers tend to spook elk and disperse them. 

This adds extra stress during an already anxiety-ridden time of year, and it could be changing elk movement patterns, according to biologists. Later in the survey, biologists observed 193 elk in the Taylor Fork drainage, where averages are usually between 25 and 100. In Porcupine, where they tend to see upward of 200 elk, they counted just over 100.

While it’s well documented that recreation has some impact on wildlife behavior, this shouldn’t be relevant in Porcupine in the winter and spring months. Why? From Dec. 1 to May 15, all users are prohibited from leaving official USFS system trails, of which there are only two in the Porcupine drainage. 

This spring, adherence to this restriction will be even more important. After a fire, vegetation usually comes back strong and healthy, and it’s likely the Porcupine unit will see significant elk feeding, if the animals feel safe.

Staying on the trails, keeping our dogs under control and respecting our wildlife neighbors is a small sacrifice to make in order to ensure elk thrive on our public and private lands. We’re lucky enough to have wildness right out our front doors, and we want to keep it that way.

In the coming weeks, as the snows start to melt and hillsides begin to green, remember that we are visitors. We are going for a walk in the living room of these elk, running through their kitchen and hiking where they rest their heads. 

In the same way that we clean, drain and dry our fishing gear or practice catch and release, we can stick to the trail. By doing so, we do our part to preserve what makes the upper Gallatin River watershed so special—its wild character, wildlands and wildlife.

David Tucker is the communications manager for the Gallatin River Task Force.

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