Hunting season forecast and habitat project updates

As we grapple with adjusting to a new normal, I find many people seeking outdoor recreational therapy. I expect renewed interest to continue as spring gives way to summer and summer to fall and I can only hope that our lives can continue to take on more normalcy in that time.

For those of you already looking forward to the fall hunting seasons, I will give you an update of what I have learned over the winter and spring. I will also give updates on the Blackfoot Clearwater Wildlife Management Area (BCWMA) elk research project and past and future habitat management projects. If you plan on attending BCWMA opener, it will happen on the usual date of May 15 at 12 p.m. Please be considerate of other members of the public and respect personal space by practicing social distancing.

The Blackfoot winter generally plays an important role in determining deer and elk abundance the following year and in some cases for several years. Typically, a severe winter will have a lag effect on deer fawn and elk calf recruitment the following year. During the 2017/18 and 2018/19 winters the Blackfoot experienced above average snowfall during all or portions of the season. As a result, the number of calves per 100 cows – our measure of recruitment into the population – declined from the previous years when calf to cow ratios were higher (see graph). This generally occurs because of decreased mobility and increased energy expenditure and competition for resources.

Another way we measure this is by tracking recruitment of yearling bulls into the population. When aerial or roadside surveys are conducted, we do our best to count observed bulls to get bull to 100 cow ratios and count the number of yearling bulls — usually spikes or brow-tined spikes. Mature, or breeding age bulls generally spend time in bachelor groups slightly upslope from the large groups of cows, calves and yearling bulls. When we conduct surveys and classify the large groups, by sex and age class, this gives us a relatively reliable measure of bull and calf recruitment into the population. If recruitment of bulls and calves increase for more than one consecutive year, we will generally increase opportunity by allowing more licenses or permits.

Our current abundance and recruitment estimates, based on recent surveys, do not support adding opportunity in the near future but if the past is any indication of the future, the past winter was much easier compared to the previous two or three winters and should help increase populations of deer and elk. You will see in the current version of the deer, elk and antelope regulations book for the 2020 hunting season that we have held steady or reduced antlerless license opportunities for most of the Blackfoot watershed hunting districts.

Game Range Elk Research Update

Starting in December of 2018 and again in early 2019, on the Blackfoot Clearwater WMA, FWP captured 59 adult female elk and fitted them with GPS collars. The purpose of the captures is to learn how elk are using the 160,000-acre Rice Ridge burn.

It is generally understood that wildfire can have positive and negative effects on elk use and forage quality and quantity. However, it is less understood how differences in burn severity affect forage and therefore selection and use by elk. If forage improves in some areas of the burn, we expect to see increased use of those areas and improved conditions that can have positive influences on nutritional condition, pregnancy rates and individual survival.

The research project is a collaborative effort between FWP, The University of Montana Wildlife Biology program and several other collaborators including the Boone and Crockett Club, the Campfire Conservation Club and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. This research project is still very much in the early phases and we should start to see preliminary results in the coming year or two.

However, one of the other goals of this research is to learn if these burns can improve forage on public land enough to maintain historic migratory behavior of this elk herd and keep them going onto the adjacent public land during the summer and fall. After one year the results are promising (see the attached map)!

Wildlife Management Area Habitat Project Update

Estimates of elk calves per 100 cows from surveys conducted during winter on the Blackfoot Clearwater WMA (Hunting District 282) from 2010 – 2020.

Over the past three to four years FWP has started to implement several habitat projects on WMAs within the Blackfoot watershed. During the winter of 2018/19 Bull Creek Forestry completed over 400 acres of grassland and forest restoration work on the Blackfoot Clearwater WMA. The main focus of the project was to remove encroaching conifers from the grasslands and thin understory trees from historically savannah like ponderosa pine stands. This was the first phase of a multi-phase project across the western portion of the WMA that will eventually include a total of approximately 3,000 acres of treatments.

Finally, in the spring and summer of 2019, Bull Creek Forestry also completed over 400 acres of similar work on the Nevada Lake WMA north of Highway 141, southeast of Helmville. Although the forest structure and composition are slightly different at the Nevada Lake WMA the project goals were very similar and the results, like that of the Blackfoot Clearwater WMA, should have positive benefits for wintering deer and elk.

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