Elk Behavior Causing Concerns
Wolves, Hunting, Private Land Access for Hunters…
BY BY QUINCY ORHAI
Are Northern Yellowstone elk changing their winter range behavior in Montana’s Paradise Valley, just north of the park? Park County Commissioner Jim Durgan, a lifelong rancher who lives in the valley outside of Livingston, seems to think so.
“I've lived here at the Durgan ranch in the Paradise Valley for 70 years, the third generation of Durgan's since 1928,” Durgan told the Pioneer. To my knowledge there have never been such huge herds of elk wintering all together as we are seeing now.”
In the past, Durgan said, elk were scattered about, bunched in herds of 25 to 50 on the benches and headwaters of Strickland Creek, and on the headwaters of Big Creek, Eight Mile, and Trail Creek behind Antelope Butte. “Now,” he said, “huge numbers of 500 or more are concentrated together down in the hay fields and pastures on the floor of the Paradise Valley. In my opinion, part of the reason for that is that the elk have been harassed by wolves, and they are banding together for safety.”
Durgan said other unusually big herds of elk are bunching together in other pastures and meadows of the Paradise Valley.
Commissioner Durgan jokes that we have a new sub-species of elk now, Pivot Elk, living in herds of 400 to 600 on the pivot irrigated meadows and pastures. “Ranchers are not all that concerned about providing some pasture for wildlife, but elk are really hard on fences and haystacks,” Durgan told us. “They run through meadows and may mess up our wheel lines, but we coexist with wildlife and believe in living with them. However, there needs to be more cooperation and management from wildlife managers in the various state and federal agencies.”
The Pioneer spoke with Alex Sienkiewicz, District Ranger of the Yellowstone Ranger District of the Gallatin National Forest, about the situation. Sienkiewicz holds a Ph.D in forestry with an emphasis in eco-system management.
Ranger Sienkiewicz points out that the National Forest lands are mostly high country, habitat that is markedly different from river-bottom land. National Forest public lands are mostly foothills to high alpine terrain. Most elk hunters hunt on public lands, creating significant pressure (along with winter weather) on elk herds to move onto private ground in bottomlands during late fall and winter.
In other words, the elk are sometimes pushed out of the high country by hunters and winter snows. “Elk and deer are adaptive critters,” Sienkiewicz said. “On private lands in the river bottoms, if there is refuge from hunters, and adequate food, security cover, space, and water, the elk will move in, in order to take advantage of that.”
Sienkiewicz also noted the obvious. “Large bottom land ranch holdings are usually private land,” he said, “and are not generally available to the public. If the elk are clustering in such places, it may not be obvious to the public, simply because the public doesn't have much access to those areas. If the elk are causing damage to haystacks and pastures, and possibly transmitting diseases, one possibility is that such damage could be managed by allowing more public hunting [on private lands]. Simply put, you can't have your cake and eat it too.”
If the elk are clustering and causing damage in areas where they are not hunted, Sienkiewicz added, consider that more hunting opportunities will likely change elk movement patterns.
One of the benefits of a thriving ranching industry and culture in Montana—is that it often supports wildlife such as elk. Sienkiewicz observed that, often, it is the private ranch setting that best offers the needed conditions of forage, cover, water, and space. “Indeed, people have generally developed for human use what was historically elk winter range—the bottom lands. So big open ranch country that's not full of people may be some of the best elk winter range left.”
Threatening that ranching culture of tolerance and coexistence with wildlife is the fact that in September Park County experienced transmission of the dreaded disease Brucellosis, apparently from elk, to a local cattle herd. Although the entire herd was tested and only one bull was found to be infected (and subsequently destroyed) the incident has grave implications. The Park County infection was the second reported in the state in 2 months.When Brucellosis was found in Montana cattle in 2007, the state veterinarian wrote: “While brucellosis poses only a minute risk to human health, the economic costs could severely curtail Montana's premiere beef cattle industry.”
Montana's cattle sales totaled $1.29 billion in 2012, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, supporting a state industry total of 2.6 million cattle.
In 2008, the Montana Depart-ment of Livestock, with input from livestock producers and other state and federal agencies, implemented a Brucellosis Designated Surveillance Area (DSA) to help mitigate the risks of transmission. “Cattle within the DSA are subject to additional disease testing and identification requirements,” according to a recent press release by state veterinarian Dr. Marty Zaluski. The DSA includes parts of all the Montana counties that border Yellowstone National Park, including all of Park County south of Interstate 90.
Montana Department of Livestock regulations for cattle include a requirement that: “All female cattle and domestic bison 4 months of age or older within Beaverhead, Gallatin, Madison and Park Counties must be official brucellosis vaccinates by January 1 of every calendar year.” Also: “All cattle and domestic bison must be tested for brucellosis within 30 days prior to change of ownership or movement out of the DSA if they are sexually intact and 12 months of age or older, or any age intended to be used for breeding purposes,” with some exceptions.
Brucellosis was originally transferred to wild elk by cattle. “Considered a spillover disease from cattle to elk and bison, brucellosis now regularly spills back from elk to cattle,” when elk are concentrated on pastures also used by cattle, according to a recent article on emerging infectious diseases published by the Center for Disease Control, Transmission of Brucellosis from Elk to Cattle and Bison, Greater Yellowstone Area, USA, 2002-2012. The study concludes that: “…manage-ment actions may have increased risk for exposure (i.e., allowing elk to feed with cattle and placing cattle in pasture with elk during late winter or spring).” And that is what appears to be shaping up now in the bottomlands of the Paradise Valley.
Comparing elk concentrating behavior with recent wolf population data shows a trend of increased elk herd size concentrations following wolf population increases. Government wolf population data show that the Yellowstone area wolf population doubled every two or three years through the late 1990s and the early turn-of-the-century years, followed by a recent leveling off. Simply put, the more wolves roam the area, the more the surviving elk concentrate in valley bottoms on private lands used for cattle feeding and wintering. Other factors enter the equation, like hunter access, but the statistical relationship, between wolf population increase and the surviving elk bunching up, is clearly visible in the Paradise Valley.
Karen Loveless is the Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks Livingston area biologist. She is currently running the hunter check stations, estimating elk numbers harvested. According to Loveless, "Elk bunching up on the valley bottom during hunting season is a continuing trend over the last decade. There's a pretty distinct trend of elk being observed in larger concentrations in recent years in Paradise Valley. I looked at survey data from the early-mid 1990s, compared to 2008-2013 data, and we're seeing more large groups, larger concentrations, and a higher proportion of elk that are in large groups.”
“For example,” Loveless continued, “in the 1990s on average less than 50 percent of observed elk were in large groups of over 100. Since 2008, on average, 80 percent of observed elk were in groups greater than 100.”
Loveless told us that the size of the large groups has increased. In the past, most of the large groups of elk were between 100 to 300 elk, but “recently we're seeing more groups of elk over 400, with some observations of groups in the 600 to 800 range."
Overall, she says, elk numbers have somewhat declined in the last decade in the two hunting districts that make up the Paradise Valley. On the east side of the valley, in Hunting District 317, elk numbers have declined in the last decade from about 1,000 to 724 currently. Hunter success is mostly unchanged in District 317. Elk numbers in Hunting District 314 have declined from about 3,500 elk in 2003 to currently about 3,000 elk. Hunter success has also declined in District 314, although with great variety in the data. Hunting District 314 has actually diverged into distinct areas, with the northern area elk population of District 314 more concentrated, probably because of much more restricted access for hunters, and the southern area elk population lower, probably because of higher predator density and more public hunting access.
Biologist Loveless lists three factors that primarily affect elk distribution. The first is weather. Lower temperatures and increased snow bring the elk down to lower elevations, while warm dry weather keeps elk in the high country.
The second major elk distribu-tion factor is predators, both their population and their activity.
The third elk distribution dynamic is human hunting. Hunting pressure has increased on public lands in terms of the number of hunters at the same time that elk populations have decreased and access to public lands through private land has also decreased, thereby concentrating hunters in remain-ing areas of good access.
According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks section chief Quentin Kujala, the essence of the problem is that there are two ungulate species competing for the same resource, i.e. the historic elk wintering grounds of the Paradise Valley river bottom pastures, that now support private cattle herds. To find practical solutions, Montana FWP is working with other state and federal agencies, and also initiated a statewide committee, the Elk Management Guidelines in Areas with Brucellosis Working Group. That statewide working group advocated reaching out to other existing groups of diverse citizens at the local level.
In Park County, that has been the Upper Yellowstone Watershed Basin Committee. Montana FWP also works to create the “necessary conversations between landowners and FWP about the literal implementation details of approved management actions that include hazing, fencing, and dispersal hunts. These smaller and very site-specific conversations are essential to identify logistics that may include fence material definitions and open/closed areas for a dispersal hunt on a specific ranch,” according to the agencies' Elk Management in Areas With Brucellosis 2014 Proposed Work Plan.
Section Chief Kujala emphasizes that the state relies on “tolerance of elk by private landowners in critical habitat.” He is very clear that: “People have the right to do what they want with their property. Cattle producers very often control the critical winter elk habitat.” He adds: “Distribution of elk is dynamic. Fires, wolves, hunting, land ownership and development, forage habitat, climate and weather changes, and land management practices all effect elk populations and distribution. We are looking to find small-scale solutions—fencing, hazing, hunter presence—small surgical steps to reduce co-mingling situations and avoid new brucellosis infections. This is not about eliminating either the disease or the elk.”