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Mild winter boosts big game population

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The elk and deer numbers appear to be on the rise in the upper northwest corner of the state, while the elk population in the Bitterroot, Clark Fork and Blackfoot drainages remain extremely low, according to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks spring surveys.

Region 1

After a mild winter the whitetail deer and elk numbers in Region One are finally on the rise, according to spring surveys. 

After two harsh winters, the mild winter really helped the whitetail recruitment numbers, which is the number of fawns that survive the winter, said Jim Williams, the FWP wildlife program manager of the region, which covers northwest Montana.

Using air and ground surveys, the FWP survey had a sample size of 4,904. They counted 37 fawns per 100 adults, a significant increase from the past year’s, seven-year low of 24. 

Williams said that they would like to have 47-to-50 fawns per adult, but “at least the trajectory is positive.”

After counting 41 fawns per adult in 2007, after a harsh winter the survey only turned up 29 fawns in 2008 and then 24 the next year.

The elk numbers have also bounced back after the dry winter. With a sample size of 3,271, the survey counted 25 calves per 100 adults, and huge increases in particular areas of the region. On an aerial classification of the South Fork of the Flathead River, the FWP counted 20 calves compared to only four the past season.

Williams said the severity of the winter doesn’t affect the mule deer as much and their population remains stable at 39 fawns for 100 adults.

Region 2

FWP Regional Wildlife Manager Mike Thompson said the whitetail and mule deer numbers are in a good spot, but the elk numbers are still a big concern in the region’s three watersheds: the Bitterroot, Blackfoot and Clark Fork.

Even after cutting way back on the past year’s elk harvest in the Bitterroot with a reduction of anterless permits, the elk recruitment numbers remained unacceptably low.

In some areas of the Bitterroot the surveys, they only counted 16 calves per 100 adult, they only counted 14 in 2009. Thompson said that 25 would be tolerable and they would want it to be at least 30.

“We’re poised for a sharp decline in the elk population if we can’t do something about the calf recruitment numbers,” Thompson said.

Because the Clark Fork drainage is densely forested, the FWP can’t get an exact count on recruitment numbers and uses a total trend count instead. 

Thompson said that they have seen a steady decline in the Clark Fork elk population over the past 10 years. In the Burdette area, hunting district 203, they counted 400 elk in 1987. This year’s survey only turned up 100, the lowest it’s been since ‘87.

The elk numbers are down in the Blackfoot watershed as well, but not as drastic as the Bitterroot and Clark Fork. In the Seeley Lake area, the FWP counted 864 elk, compared to the past year’s 965. In the Lincoln area the drop was more significant, they counted 488 compared to 726 in 488. 

While the elk numbers have dropped in the Clark Fork and Bitterroot, the whitetail recruitment numbers have been promising. With a sample size of 817 whitetail in the lower Clark Fork there were 53 fawns per 100 adults, 10 more than the past spring. The Blackfoot whitetail recruitment numbers also increased by 10. The FWP counted 55 fawns per 100 adult.


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