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What happened to the Porcupine elk herd?

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By Abbie Digel Managing Editor

In the 1970s and ‘80s, the Gallatin
elk herd numbered between 1,600
and 2,000. A subsidiary herd living
in the Porcupine Creek Wilderness
Management Area just south of Big
Sky had 600-800 animals. Now, those
counts are about at 400 for the Gallatin
herd, and between 60-100 for the
Porcupine herd. FWP biologist Julie
Cunningham counted 132 in the
Porcupine herd in the spring of 2010.
Cunningham said the herd’s population
has likely continued to decline
after this past harsh winter.
The first recorded sighting of an elk
herd near Big Sky was in the 1830s,
according to People and the Gallatin
Elk Herd by Allan Lovaas, an FWP
publication printed in April 1970.
Elk likely migrated toward Big Sky
to take shelter from Yellowstone’s
severe weather, and they still reside
here today.
This area has also been a platform
for deep historical human impact
on wildlife, and an ongoing battleground,
Cunningham said. But, she
added, it’s a history every resident of
the canyon should be proud of.
The Gallatin Canyon herd was an
important food source for settlers
in the 1800s. By 1919, elk had been
extirpated from most of the state due
to overhunting, but the Gallatin herd
“is so rugged that elk remained in
great numbers,” Cunningham said.
The Gallatin is a prime example of
early regulation efforts to protect fish
and wildlife resources, he added.
Between the 1930s and ‘60s, Canyon
residents provided elk with supplementary
feed during winter because
of a starvation epidemic. According
to the FWP, this situation was
“pivotal in determining that the state
of Montana should not and would
not support wintertime feeding of
elk,” as opposed to other states like
Wyoming. For many years after that,
wildlife managers actually worked to
reduce the Gallatin herd’s population.

Where are they now?

During winter some of the animals
migrate west to the Madison Valley,
then return to the Gallatin in summer.
A number of factors affect the
herd’s location, including humans,
weather and predators.
Some human impacts are direct,
such as hunting, trapping, feeding;
while others are indirect, like the
elimination of predators, livestock
grazing, wildfire mitigation and the
creation of game preserves, according
to Lovaas.
Dave Alvin, owner of East Slope
Outdoors, a guide outfit on Highway
191, has been hunting in the area for
over 20 years. Historically, he said,
he’s always seen 30 or 40 head, but
this year, there were only 20 across
from his property, where he usually
spots the herd.
He’s also noticed a change in the
ungulates’ habitat. There’s been
a cow on the edge of the highway
across from the Ramshorn subdivision,
for example.
“I’ve never seen a cow on the edge of
the highway before,” Alvin said.
Alvin sees the same seven or eight
cows calving on his property every
year. “But some of the elk are starting
to calve closer to human development
rather than farther away from it.”
What’s causing the push?

“Who’s to say,” Alvin said.
Cunningham believes predators can
have a “non lethal effect on elk,”
meaning even if the predators don’t
hunt or kill members of a herd, they
can still push the elk out of their
grazing areas. This may be pushing
more animals to the Madison Valley.
“More migrating means less are staying,”
she said.

This spring, Cunningham received
reports of elk hiding along the
Gallatin River. “[They] often go
to water to die,” she said, so this
move to the river likely indicated
they were in poor shape after the
harsh winter. They went to the
river because it’s “a good travel
corridor, and it’s the lowest spot in
elevation,” she added. “They were
waiting for the green-up.”
“This winter definitely did not
help any of the animals at all. A
tough winter will increase fatalities.
They just keel over and die, and the
calves can’t make it. It’s definitely a
factor in the decline,” Alvin said.

Population decrease
This is the first year the FWP has
not focused on reducing the elk
population and instead is attempting
to bring the population back up.
This January, Cunningham flew in
over the Porcupine Creek Wilderness
Management Area to perform
FWP’s annual aerial survey to count
the herd’s numbers. From a helicopter,
researchers can hover and
get close to classify the ungulates,
but after members of the public
witnessed the flight this year,
Cunningham received several calls
concerning the well being of the
elk, and potential hazing.
“When we count the elk, we do not
move them far. We get them to a
place where they’re visible and then
get away from them,” Cunningham
said. “In the helicopter I displaced
elk, but January is not a terrible
time to do a quick exercise like that
because elk generally have not depleted
their fat reserves [in spring].
Furthermore, we’re in, we’re out
and it’s over.”
Flying is a widely used method for
population counting, Cunningham
said. She focuses on gathering information
on calves instead of cows
and bulls because calves provide
“estimates of recruitment, which
let me know if the population
should be growing or declining.”
On the Jan. 11 flight, the elk count
was 397 total, down from 2010’s
early winter count of 511. In addition
to severe winter, several other
factors could have affected this
year’s low numbers: the previous
hunting season, bears, wolves and
other predators.
Another factor affecting population
decrease is the spreading of
brucellosis, a disease that causes the
animals to miscarry their calves. In
the past 30 years, Montana FWP
has performed limited testing in
elk for the virus. Studies in the
early 1990s mostly in the Greater
Yellowstone Area north and west
of the park showed brucellosis
exposure rates ranging from 0 to 2
percent. Depending on the testing
technique used, more recent positive
exposure rates ranged between
5 and 16 percent in areas north of
Gardiner and on the east side of the
Madison Valley.

Industry and regulation
Elk hunting is a major industry in
Montana. Managing the herds’ numbers
provides the information FWP
needs to issue hunting permits.
“Hunters want to know what they
can hunt in Gallatin Valley,” Cunningham
said. Until recently, the
Gallatin was one of the strongest
herds, which is why hunting was so
popular here.
With the population in decline,
will it be ecologically sustainable to
continue unlimited hunting? Probably
not, Cunningham says.
A season setting meeting is scheduled
for July 12 in Big Sky to discuss
the upcoming hunting season. Near
Big Sky, Areas 310 and 360 are popular
grounds for hunters. Both have
different regulations: 360 is one of
the most liberal in the state, with unlimited
bull and cow hunting, while
Area 310, where the Porcupine herd
mostly resides, is very restrictive, and
hunters there can only take bulls.
“Bulls don’t do a lot for population –
that’s what cows and calves are for,”
Cunningham said. Also, cows can
only be shot on either private property
or National Forrest land, limiting
the hunting area.
A change to this year’s season is the
planning of a 2011 wolf hunt. FWP
plans the harvest to be limited to 19
tags. This new addition to the plan
“won’t change much for the elk
population, but [an increase] should
happen eventually,” Cunningham
What’s next?
“Wildlife managers in our complex
and dynamic society must realistically
appraise and cope with demands
and restrictions imposed by
sociological, political and economic
influences,” said Frank Dunkle,
the Director of Montana’s Fish and
Game Department in the ‘70s.
Dunkle’s point remains true. In this
system of checks and balances, it’s a
constant battle for those managing
the fate of the Porcupine elk herd,
as well as herds statewide.
“When elk [get] too numerous for
the landscape, we reduce them.
When wolves are too numerous for
what we want for the elk herd, we
can reduce the wolves,” Cunningham
said. Her goal for the next 10
years is to “have enough elk that we
will see increased hunting use and
activity again. We’ll see what the 10
years after that brings.”

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