Montana Biologists to Study Elk and Wolves with GPS Collars

February 26, 2011 by  
Filed under Trail Boss News

HAMILTON, Mont. (AP) — Dozens of cow elk and two wolves have been equipped with GPS collars as part of a study that could provide important information on the big-game animal and its interaction with predators. Biologists with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the University of Montana attached the collars to 44 elk captured with net guns and tranquilizer darts fired from a helicopter this month.

“It’s rare to get the opportunity in a single watershed to do a comprehensive study like this,” Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Craig Jourdonnais told the Ravalli Republic. “People are excited about how comprehensive it is. Nationwide, there are a lot of sportsmen groups interested in big game. They know they need solid data to effectively manage big-game populations. They’ve been willing to support this project.”

He said the study, expected to last through 2013, should show how elk are using the landscape and the pressures they face in the East and West Forks of the Bitterroot River. Biologists already discovered that the body condition of elk captured in the upper West Fork area was not as good as those captured on the other side of the valley. “We didn’t see a lot of elk in great condition,” Jourdonnais said. “It is a tougher winter range.”

State biologists planned to conduct three or four flights a month to check for mortality as well. In the spring, biologists hope to capture and radio-collar elk calves and track them to determine causes of mortality. Biologists said the study could help explain why the elk the population in the West Fork has dropped from about 1,900 in 2005 to about 750 last year.

Some say wolves are to blame, and the study could determine whether that’s accurate. “We are trying to build a baseline of information about wildlife in the Bitterroot,” said Jourdonnais. Biologists also hope to get funding to try to determine the black bear and mountain lion population in the region. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation recently contributed $30,800 to help pay for a portion of the elk calf study, which is expected to cost $50,000.

“We want to know what’s going on there,” said Blake Henning, the foundation’s vice president of lands and conservation. “Credible science is something that we’re very much interested in, especially the interaction between large predators and elk.”The study could eventually help biologists and federal officials better understand the interaction of big game and predators, information that could be used to make wildlife management decisions.

“Everyone gripes about wolves and the impact they are having on elk here in the valley,” said Tony Jones, president of the Ravalli County Fish and Game Association. “Opinion is not enough. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service isn’t going to just take the word of anyone living in the Bitterroot.”

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