Craig Jourdonnais spots the elk herd within minutes of driving onto the MPG Ranch in the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula. It's a blustery December morning and the fresh-fallen snow on the mountainside provides a stark contrast to the animals' two-tone tawny coats. He pauses to watch the 200-plus herd for a moment, then eases his pickup into gear to get a closer look. Elk are a familiar sight for the wildlife biologist and former game warden. He currently works for the MPG, managing the hunters the landowners allow in, as well as the elk when they're on the 10,000-acre ranch.
Elk are thriving in parts of the West, and many states have areas where the populations surpass wildlife managers' goals. Warmer-than-average winters during the past 30 years, combined with good forage and safe havens, mean that more calves survive to breeding age. In Montana, elk numbers grew from 65,000 in 1990 to 160,000 in 2015, despite the reintroduction of wolves. Hunting is the main tool for keeping elk in check, but as large ranches once open to hunting are sold to people who may prefer watching wildlife to hunting it, this management tool is becoming less effective, while elk numbers continue to grow.
That's frustrating for Montana hunters, most of whom fail to harvest their yearly elk for a variety of reasons. It's also frustrating to longtime ranchers who allow hunting: The elk move to safer havens during the five-week big game rifle season, and then return to nibble ranchers' haystacks for the rest of the winter.
"Elk, more than any other big game animal I have ever managed, are sensitive to predation," Jourdonnais says, a wry grin crossing his tanned face. "They can find refuge from hunters, whether it's security-based, like heavily forested terrain, or on private property that offers safety."
To reduce elk numbers, in 2016, Montana wildlife managers instituted the longest and largest hunting season ever offered in the state"shoulder seasons" running from August 2016 to February 2017, flanking the regular five-week rifle season in October and November, in about one-third of its hunting districts. That will work, though, only if the elk are on property where they can be hunted. During the shoulder seasons, that's mainly private ranches. "If you have five properties and four are wide-open for hunting and one is limited, the elk will find out where that boundary is," says Jourdonnais.
In the 1600s, an estimated 10 million elk roamed the North American continent. Their numbers plummeted with unregulated hunting, competition for grass from domestic livestock and habitat destruction. By the 1890s, there were fewer than 100,000 elk. Their numbers rebounded through wildlife management efforts, growing to more than 1 million by 2009.
That rebound is a success story, and yet too many elk can cause problems. In Yellowstone National Park, they damaged river bottoms by stripping away the willows, aspen and cottonwoods, until reintroduced wolves curbed their numbers. In Wyoming, burgeoning herds crowd into artificial winter feeding grounds, spreading diseases like brucellosis and, potentially, chronic wasting disease (see sidebar).
- photo by Chad Harder
Elk also eat hay and grass intended for cattle. Bill Galt's family-owned 248,000-acre ranch in central Montana makes him one of the state's largest private landowners, and the ranch shelters thousands of elk. He's willing to share the land, but notes that it comes with a price. He fences pastures in a "rest and rotate" manner, grazing cattle on a pasture one year, then fencing it off the next year to give the grass a chance to grow back. But, he says, "The elk do the exact opposite, and fences don't work for elk."
Wildlife managers balance science with the cooperation of ranchers like Galt, along with hunters and the general public, in deciding how many elk should roam the landscape. It's not always easy. Ben Lamb, a longtime hunter, wildlife advocate and veteran lobbyist for the Wildlife Federation describes Montana's situation as "a toxic stew of private land rights, the commercialization of wildlife, public access and climate change."