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, 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 youve 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, well
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
Beginning in the late 1970s, 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; 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 would theoretically reduce or
eliminate hunting pressure on spike elk, allowing them to at least survive to age 2 ½. As
it turned out, this regulation didnt 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
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 elks head, you can normally see if theres 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 hasnt 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 ½ 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, heres 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 1970s, 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 WMAs. 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
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 youre serious about putting some giant antlers
on your wall, the Gravellies might not be the best place to go, in 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 its since slipped a few spots. Its still an
incredible elk, and if youre 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, (Ill refrain from making any judgements on anyones
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 youre 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 youre looking for somewhere to hunt elk where you wont 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 theyre 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 the
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. Hamlins 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, lets be thankful that were living in what may
well be the golden age of elk hunting.