The elk are teeming in Missoula's North Hills. Counts in the 1980s put the population in the double digits; last year the herd was 622 strong. All it takes is a spotting scope to catch the odd glimpse from town.
But the elk are causing problems. They graze on ranches. They knock down cattle fences. They eat tulips. And they're growing less wild, says Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Vickie Edwards. All it took was a heavy winter in 1996 to force the herd down above Interstate 90. Forage there is rich and safety plentiful. Elk began migrating to that winter range earlier, and leaving later.
"Those elk figured out really quickly that yes, the grass really is greener on the other side," Edwards says.
Since 2002, FWP has been trying to motivate the North Hills elk to continue their migratory tradition. They've done so through early rifle seasons in the Rattlesnake Wilderness, early hunts on private ranches, and a special game damage hunt in winter. As of Feb. 15the last day of the game damage hunt this seasonhunters took a record 11 elk from the North Hills. Edwards calls the many separate hunts "death by a thousand cuts."
"We've got folks trying to make a living out there," Edwards says. "And it's an economic hardship to have elk consuming standing grasses, getting into haystacks, tearing down fences."
Economics aside, the elk in hunting district 283 are simply way over objective. Lengthy stays and large numbers in the North Hills are bad for both the elk and the environment. FWP faces a unique problem here: elk numbers in the eastern portion of 283, where hunter access is easier, aren't nearly as strong. Increasing the hunting quota will only stress those elk more.
That's why the FWP Commission designated a new sub-district Feb. 16 stretching west from Rattlesnake Creek to Highway 93, with 50 elk licenses available on a draw in 2012. And it's why Edwards plans to submit an amendment to FWP's 2005 elk management plan setting a separate population objective for the North Hills herd.
"Those elk are growing within the wildland urban interface," Edwards says.
Of course, managing a hunt on the outskirts of Missoula presents its own challenges. FWP has to set safety zones and work closely with hunters and with local residents to make sure there are no accidental targets in the crosshairs.