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After years of evaluating elk survival and recruitment in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, state officials are planning the next steps for managing the area’s elk herd. Earlier this year, the University of Montana and the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MTFWP) published the study’s scientific findings and management recommendations in a final report.
This study was initiated after a sharp change in elk population dynamics caused concern for Montana hunters and conservationists. Changes in fire activity and land use contributed to an estimated 25% decline in elk through the mid-2000s. In 2009, calf recruitment in the Bitterroot elk herd reached a historic low. Many fingers were pointed at increases in predator populations, particularly wolves, which were expanding in number and range. Wildlife researchers mobilized to find out why the elk herd was in decline and whether predators were responsible.
The Bitterroot Valley is home to a diversity of predator species, including black bear, coyote and wolf. Research findings from this study, however, indicated that mountain lions were the leading cause of elk mortality, responsible for at least 20% of annual calf mortality.
Research in the Bitterroot showed that mountain lions exist at an unusually high density in the valley and resulted in an increased lion harvest quota in 2013. This management action was taken to boost elk calf survival rates. Wildlife managers and biologists from MTFWP are planning to re-evaluate calf survival in the summer of 2016 and determine if the increased mountain lion harvest has helped calf survival.
Results of the Bitterroot Elk Project also show that habitat quality is limiting calf production and potentially predisposing elk to predation. Adult female survival was found to be the most important factor influencing the overall population. Habitat treatments offer another management option to improve forage and productivity in the Bitterroot ecosystem. While there are currently no habitat management activities underway, MTFWP is now working with the US Forest Service to consider forest management to improve habitat in the Bitterroot National Forest.
This study highlights the importance of both predation and habitat on ungulate prey species. SCI Foundation and Montana state researchers are currently discussing the future of elk management in the Bitterroot Valley. Stayed tuned to our First for Wildlife blog for more updates!
SCI Foundation has been involved with the Bitterroot Elk Project since the study was initiated in 2011. SCI’s Western Montana Chapter, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and several other organizations were also funding partners.
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