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Elk in the Gravelly and Snowcrest Ranges

The results of fourteen years of research


T.gif (911 bytes)he Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks is wrapping up the results of fourteen years of elk research in the Gravelly and Snowcrest Mountains of southwest Montana. Headed up by biologist Ken Hamlin,UpperRuby.jpg (15981 bytes) this study is the most comprehensive elk research done in Montana, and has produced some interesting findings. The results will be published by FWP at some point in the not distant future, but Cowboy Heaven Consulting subscribers are going to get a sneak preview, and for that matter the summation of the research. If you’ve ever read many wildlife biology treatises, you know that the endless tables and graphs make for pretty dry reading, guaranteed to glaze the eyes and brains of non-scientists. So, we’ll just hit the high points, and the conclusions reached, as well as what they mean to elk hunters. Rest assured, though, these conclusions are supported by a staggering amount of research.

Beginning in the late 1970’s, several things about the elk population in the Gravelly/Snowcrest area, also common to many other elk herds around the state, attracted the attention of FWP. The percentage of bulls, particularly mature bulls, in the population was very low, down around the 5-10% range. Also, the cow/calf ratio was around 35 calves per 100 cows, down from a normal range of 60-65/100 cows. Obviously, the apparent solution was to allow more bulls to live to an older age, increasing both deficient ratios in the process.

A couple of characteristics of the area make for high hunter success, and consequently, relatively low elk survival. Much of the area is quite open;Hunting district map of the Gravelly/Snowcrest area for example the upper Ruby River valley, which lies between the Gravelly and Snowcrest ranges, consists of only 12% secure elk cover during the hunting season. A high proportion of the area is also open to ATV use. There are pockets of secure cover throughout the entire region, but the bulk of it lies in the southeast portion, in Hunting District 323, and to some extent HD 327 along the southern edge of the area. Even there, though, due to fairly extensive roading, and the comparatively gentle topography, elk are more hard pressed to find secure habitat than in many areas, like in the Madison Range just across the Madison River to the east. Fortunately, the elk herd is very productive, and can withstand the high harvest rates that occur.

So, in 1981 FWP instituted a Branch-Antlered rule, where a bull had to have a fork protruding at least four inches off one antler. This wouldExample of spike and brow-tine bulls theoretically reduce or eliminate hunting pressure on spike elk, allowing them to at least survive to age 2 . As it turned out, this regulation didn’t work, and was in fact detrimental. What happened was that a lot of spikes were still being shot, and the bulk of them left to lay. Spike mortality, due virtually completely to hunting, ranged around 40%. These were documented kills, and the actual total was undoubtedly significantly higher than that. Plus, hunter dissatisfaction with the new regulation was high. Identifying a branch antlered bull at a glance was difficult, especially since spikes represented such a high percentage of the bull population. Too many hunters shot first, and identified later, resulting in a lot of dead spikes abandoned in the woods, which was the other main point of dissatisfaction.

In 1990 a Brow-Tine regulation was instituted, requiring a point on the lower half of either antler, at least four inches long. This makes for easier identification, since if you can see the elk’s head, you can normally see if there’s brow tines, where a branch antlered spike normally has the branch toward the top of the antler which might be obscured. The Brow-Tine rule was vastly more successful, at least in reducing spike mortality, which dropped to around 14%. However, somewhat to the dismay of a lot of people, the Brow-Tine rule hasn’t necessarily resulted in greatly increased percentages of trophy bulls in the population. In the Gravelly study area, the mortality rate for bulls older than 2 years old is 75%, again almost completely due to hunting. Trophy bulls in the 7+ year age class represent less than 1% of the population.

Regarding population numbers, here’s a few more miscellaneous statistics. FWP has numbers on the Wall Creek Wildlife Management Area, which lies along the east side of the Gravellies, back through the forties. Throughout the forties and fifties, there were very few elk wintering there, only 50 or so. Of course, during that time it was a privately owned ranch. The owners were more interested in wintering their cattle than large numbers of elk, and when elk numbers started increasing through the sixties, their complaints resulted in some very liberal regulations designed to encourage high elk harvests in the south Gravellies. In the 1970’s, the state purchased the ranch and it became the Wall Creek WMA, and elk numbers started to really increase from approximately 750 at that point. By the nineties, around 2500 elk were wintering on the WMA, a number that has held relatively constant for a number of years, leading biologists to feel that the elk population has hit a plateau, and the range is near its carrying capacity. Ken Hamlin adds that they thought this same thing back in the eighties, also, though.

The other main wintering areas in the region are on the west side of the Snowcrest Range, and consist of the Blacktail and Robb-Ledford WMA’s. About 750-1000 elk winter on the Robb-Ledford, and 1500-1700 on the Blacktail WMA. Elk counted on springtime aerial census flights of the entire Gravelly/Snowcrest area have increased from around 4000 in the mid-eighties, to 8000 currently, with an all-time high of 8500. Note that these are actual counted elk, not estimates, although the figures are obviously rounded off somewhat. Hamlin estimates the pre-hunting season elk population of the region at 11,000-12,000 elk.

The bull/cow ratio has increased from a low of 7 bulls/100 cows in 1978, to the current ratio of 20/100. While certainly not outstanding, this ratio is typical of many heavily hunted herds in Montana. Total bull harvest ranged around 600 per year from 1980 to 1990. After the Brow-Tine regulation went into effect, this increased to 700-1200 bulls. But, as mentioned earlier, not many of those are trophy older bulls; less than 1% of bulls taken are over 4 years old. After hunting season, there are only about five bulls two years old and older per 100 cows.

So, you can begin to see that if you’re serious about putting some giant antlers on your wall, the Gravellies might not be the best place to go, inA good Gravelly range bull spite of the fact that the biggest elk ever killed in Montana came from there. In 1958, Fred Mercer killed a giant 7 X 7, scoring 419 4/8 B & C, that still holds the #1 spot for typical elk in Montana. For that matter, for a long time it was the #2 typical overall in the Boone & Crockett record book, although it’s since slipped a few spots. It’s still an incredible elk, and if you’re ever in Missoula, be sure and stop by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation headquarters and check it out. However, as the saying goes, that was then, and this is now. If, however, you are mainly interested in putting some elk meat in the freezer, the Gravellies are an excellent place to go.

Overall hunter success rates for the region run from 25-30%. That may not sound all that high, but many other areas with similarly easy access in the state only have success rates in the 15% range. Elk hunting is a challenge, even in the best areas!

Hunter numbers range from 4000-5000 resident hunters, and 1500-2000 non-residents. One interesting statistic, (I’ll refrain from making any judgements on anyone’s hunting ability), is that although non-residents comprise about 30% of total hunters, they harvest 38% of the bulls. Perhaps the most valuable statistic, if you’re looking to put meat in the freezer and horns on the wall, is that up to 42 % of the mature bulls are killed the first week of the season, with a considerable percentage of those on opening day. Those ratios hold fairly consistent for all age classes of elk, so opening week is obviously a good time to be hunting the Gravellies. The other good time is late in the season, at least in years when cold and snow congregate elk on the Wildlife Management Areas. Under those conditions, if you can tough out the weather conditions yourself and have a cow tag in your pocket, getting an elk can be nearly a sure thing.

The relatively high percentage of non-resident hunters is interesting, particularly since there is very little outfitting in the area. Hamlin feels the open topography lends itself to do-it-yourself hunting, particularly by those with less elk hunting experience. So, if you’re looking for somewhere to hunt elk where you won’t have to backpack for miles through jackstrawed deadfall, where you will likely spot elk from a distance instead of merely flashes of tan in the timber, and where an inexperienced hunter has a relatively good chance at going home with an elk in the back of the truck, the Gravelly/Snowcrest area is a good choice.

As you might expect, fourteen years of research has yielded some interesting conclusions, although they’re not what you might expect. First, they found no correlation between the bull/cow ratio and the calf/cow ratio. In other words, even at low bull ratios of 5/100, the vast bulk of the cows were impregnated. Pregnancy rates have remained virtually unchanged over the years. Other studies have also come to this conclusion, including studies on areas such as the Flying D ranch that have bull ratios from 50-70/100. In fact, there is some evidence that pregnancy rates actually decrease at high bull ratios. Science can be a perplexing endeavor, and Hamlin says this decrease must be an anomaly. Also, there appears to be no discernable relationship between the age structure of bulls in the herd and pregnancy rates. Two year old bulls impregnate just as many cows as do trophy class 7+ year olds. The only trend they have found in this category, which is somewhat inconclusive, is that older bulls may impregnate the cows earlier in the rut, which would result in earlier births and potentially stronger calves going into their first winter.

Nor is there any evidence that bulls grow any bigger antlers under the Brow Tine regulations. One would think that having bigger bulls doing theJohn Houseman with a nice Gravelly bull breeding should result in bigger antlers throughout the herd over time, but this does not appear to be the case. Again, this is not idle speculation, but supported by reams of data regarding antler volume measurements. Hamlin’s theory on this is that the genetic makeup of the cows has as much, and possibly more, to do with antler size than that of the sires. This theory is supported by research done on whitetail deer.

Also perplexingly, the average age of bulls taken was actually higher years ago under "Any Bull" regulations, when spikes were legal. Hamlin attributes this to the possibility that less serious hunters would likely shoot the first spike they saw, resulting in higher survival of the cagier, less accessible older bulls. In fact, it appears that in easily accessible areas like the Gravellies, restrictive antler size regulations might actually be counter-productive. When everyone is forced to hunt for older bulls, their survival rate goes down and few survive to the six or seven years necessary to grow a trophy rack.

If nothing else, this research demonstrates what a complex endeavor wildlife management is, and it is perhaps more accurately described as people management. Elk numbers have dramatically increased all over the west, apparently not because of and perhaps in spite of complex management schemes. The reasons for this are extremely complex and not fully understood. Whatever the reason, let’s be thankful that we’re living in what may well be the golden age of elk hunting.


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