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On the (Elk) Horns of a Dilemma

Elk Management in the Elkhorns and Pine Ridge

Elk on the Sun River Game RangeElk on the Sun River Game Range

Elk populations in Montana are thriving, but in two different Montana landscapes, that success is causing problems that have neighbors distrusting neighbors, citizens distrusting their government agencies, and people questioning one another’s private use of public resources. Add the backdrop of a lengthy drought, and you have two dilemmas that must be resolved.

A One-of-A-Kind Place

The Elkhorns are an isolated mountain range southeast of Helena, with roughly 300,000 acres of alpine meadows and lakes, forests, grasslands, and areas of sagebrush and juniper.

The most heavily hunted district in Montana, the Elkhorns feature open terrain and unsurpassed elk habitat as well as moose, mule deer, mountain goat, and black bear. Decades after bighorn sheep were extirpated from the area, they were reintroduced in 1996, and by 2002, the population had grown such that FWP issued the first bighorn hunting permits for the Elkhorns.

The Elkhorns provide for a diverse range of recreational uses—hunting, fishing, hiking, climbing, camping, mountain biking, horse-packing, skiing, motorized recreation, and “watchable wildlife” – in addition to livestock grazing and some mining. The National Guard has a gunnery range on the east side.

The Elkhorns encompass National Forest lands, Bureau of Land Management lands, school trust lands belonging to the state of Montana, and private inholdings. There are two unique aspects to the area’s management:

  1. The National Forest lands are specially designated as a Wildlife Management Unit, the only area in the National Forest System with that designation.
  2. The Elkhorns are managed under a one-of-a-kind agreement among the US Forest Service (Beaverhead-Deerlodge and Helena national forests), Bureau of Land Management, and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP).

In the early 1980s, it became clear that the accessibility of the Elkhorns was allowing so much hunting pressure that the elk population was suffering; bull numbers were reduced to dismally low levels, with few reaching maturity. In 1987, FWP changed its hunting regulations for the district. Cows and branch-antlered bulls could be hunted only by permit, and “spikes” (yearling bulls) could be hunted under a general license. This system has allowed more bulls to be recruited into the population, some bulls now live to ages 14 or 15, and the overall population is healthier in age composition and bull-to-cow ratio.

Beautiful landscape, cooperative management, a solid elk population – what’s the problem?

“Where Wildlife’s Supposed To Be”

The elk in the Elkhorns make their living on federal range lands that include allotments for livestock grazing. Livestock producers assert that the numbers of elk grazing on the allotments deplete the range before the cattle even arrive for the grazing season. Because of this depletion, producers complain, they must move their cattle off the allotments before the grazing season is over and pay high costs for feed or other pasture.

FWP is required to take action when game animals cause damage on private lands. The Elkhorns pose a different problem, however, because the land at the center of the controversy is public.

“Ranches in some parts of Montana are made up of very large holdings of private property,” says FWP’s Mike Korn. “But many of the ranches around the Elkhorns are made up of smaller private holdings that are inextricably linked to grazing allotments. … In areas where the land is mostly private, we’ve had ranchers complain bitterly about elk on private range or getting into haystacks. But here, the unique issue is elk on public land. The popular notion is that public land is where the wildlife’s supposed to be. But here in the Elkhorns, that’s the issue.”

As a result of the ongoing controversy, county commissioners, livestock producers, hunters, conservationists, and other stakeholders formed the Elkhorns Working Group in 2002, with sponsorship from state and federal agencies. A previous effort at group resolution had dissolved in rancor, but by June 2002 this new group had succeeded in adopting a charter, a set of guiding principles, and a vision of what the Elkhorns should look like in 20 years. The vision reads in part “open spaces, clean water, and diverse plant and animal communities managed within the context of the ecological capability of the land.”

The group has called for more unified management efforts among the agencies, a vegetation study by an independent party, development of a vegetation management plan, a “freeze” on the elk population and cattle allotments until more information becomes available, and other provisions. Now independent of the agencies (although with administrative support from FWP), the group is working on raising operational funds, exploring how to consolidate the existing public lands through trades and acquisitions, and other initiatives.

“Nutritionally Demanding Critters”

Jodie Canfield, USFS Elkhorn Coordinator, notes some of the challenges. The forage base has been dramatically diminished by four to five years of drought conditions. "Managing both of these large, nutritionally demanding critters in severe drought has challenged us to try and come up with alternatives to traditional livestock grazing in the Elkhorns.” She adds, “It’s not just cow and elk, but elk and other wildlife, the other species we want to provide habitat for. … And it’s also keeping cattle as part of that landscape, knowing that if some of these ranchers go out of business, you end up with subdivision, and that’s not good for wildlife either.”

After a 22-year career with FWP culminating in the post of deputy director, Ron Marcoux left 13 years ago to join the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). In addition to providing support for the working group, RMEF contributes to habitat enhancement projects and raises funds to acquire private property and conservation easements to add to public lands. Marcoux notes that “subdivision is really moving into the Elkhorns area, and that is going to put pressure on both the livestock community and wildlife. … The reality is that ranches may come up for sale out there but because of the subdivision values, it’s almost impossible for livestock interests to purchase the lands. In some cases, purchasing that land and keeping it in public ownership will still allow some cattle grazing and provide for the wildlife benefits, without homes all over the place.”

The scope of stakeholders in the Elkhorns leads to “a diversity of political involvement,” says Marcoux. “There are some folks who absolutely wouldn’t want land to be acquired, for example. They think that’s a communist plot!” Still, he is hopeful that the working group will arrive at satisfactory solutions because of “the quality of the people and the frankness of the discussions that have taken place to date, getting the issues on the table.”

FWP’s Mike Korn says the elk issue is just one of many challenges faced by the livestock industry: tougher economic conditions, more involvement in land management by a broader spectrum of the public, more scrutiny of how allotment permittees use the range. “Used to be, ranchers and land management agencies were the only participants in how the land was used. But the situation has changed, and more people are demanding a say in the management of public land. Ranchers are struggling with swings in the economy and feeling as though their way of life is under assault. At the same time, the public is saying, this is public land where I recreate, and there are things of intrinsic worth there that I value.”

How Many Elk Are There?

One source of contention in the Elkhorns is the size of the elk population. Livestock producers have long held that there are too many elk in the area, while hunters are of course happy to see the elk population thrive. The current management plan calls for elk populations to be in the range of 1,800 to 2,200. The February 2003 FWP aerial survey put the number at about 1,485 elk, down from 1,706 last year. (The population hit its peak of about 2,893 animals in 1996.) Distrusting FWP’s count as too low, members of a local agricultural organization (some members of which are also members of the Elkhorn Working Group) hired a helicopter and an independent biologist, and conducted their own survey. They counted 1,239 elk, fewer than the official FWP count.

The Damage Looked Like “Signs”

In southeast Montana, near Pompey’s Pillar, in a hilly area called Pine Ridge, the dining habits of elk are also causing problems, but of a different sort than in the Elkhorns. Here, during crop season, elk are moving down from the uplands to irrigated fields of corn and alfalfa, eating and trampling their way through the farmers’ profits.

Steve Sian, who grows corn and beets, told the Billings Gazette that average damage to his corn is 10 to 20 percent, about $8,000 worth. One observer said that in aerial photos, the damage to cultivated fields looks like the alien crop markings in the Mel Gibson movie “Signs.”

Although Captain William Clark reported seeing elk in this country during the Corps of Discovery expedition, the species was effectively eliminated as the land was settled. Elk were brought from Yellowstone National Park in the early 1950s, the population rebounded, and they now number an estimated 600 to 650 head. FWP has increased the number of hunting permits in response to the growth of the herd and the increased damage complaints.

Sian told the Gazette, “I do let a lot of hunters in … Around me I have neighbors who limit hunters, don’t allow hunting or whose places are outfitted or leased.” Another landowner, Rod McCloy, said, “It’s hard to let Joe Public hunt without being guided” because they shoot too close to his cows. The state has obtained hunting access on some properties through its Block Management program, but the landowners report that the savvy elk disappear from the land during hunting season.

Last fall, FWP tried scaring the elk with noisy propane guns and hazing them with aircraft and a herder, but the elk had found superb habitat in the cornfields and were not about to leave. When the agency used a helicopter to herd elk out into the open and shot several of them (including trophy animals), landowners objected, and hunters said they should have been given the opportunity to take those animals.

The Working Group Wasn’t Working

FWP brought the stakeholders in the Pine Ridge elk controversy together into a working group – the Pine Ridge Elk Working Group—to seek solutions. After several monthly meetings without any progress, however, the group agreed to “take a breath.” In September 2002, FWP hired Cossitt Consulting to survey group members and conduct one-on-one conversations to draw out the key issues and then recommend how to proceed. Among other findings, the consultant reported that:

  • Landowners suffering game damage said it was necessary to manage the elk herd now.
  • Other landowners who had lesser damage from time to time did not consider it a real problem for them. They thought the herd numbers might need management at some point in the future.
  • Landowners who reported little or no game damage on their property said they would generally like to see more elk year-round on their property.

On the subject of hunting

  • All respondents believed hunting should be used in some way, but some questioned its overall effectiveness to manage herd size. This strategy would require the cooperation of those landowners with large acreages that include elk habitat. Many of those landowners do not see an immediate need to reduce herd size.
  • Landowners who limit hunter access do so because some hunters cause damage, may pose a danger to cattle, increase liability for landowners, and other reasons.
  • Respondents were receptive to fee-hunts and use of outfitters, except the primary target for such hunts is bull elk, while respondents thought more cows should be killed.
  • Landowners who are also hunters would like first rights to hunt elk on their property.

Stakeholders had also considered fencing, moving the elk, and enhancing habitat to draw the elk away from croplands – all strategies that would be expensive and complicated to implement without assurance of success.

Importantly, the consultant found that the matter had become very personal for many people. Some of the respondents like the elk and even feed them in the winter, and some don’t want to see any elk killed for any reason. Others view the elk as their own commodity to hunt or otherwise use as they wish. One person who moved to the area from the East Coast takes the position that it’s his land and no one has the right to hunt on it. The consultant reported that some landowners found themselves unable to trust that what their neighbors told them was true.

The main conclusion of the study was that stakeholders were too far apart on the question of managing the herd to formulate an overarching vision or adopt specific goals. With that understanding, the Pine Ridge Elk Working Group decided to meet again, to explore smaller-scale solutions to individual damage problems.

In May 2003, FWP began preparing for another season of elk damage at Pine Ridge. The agency used means such as herding and issued kill permits to control elk damage. Expensive and labor intensive, these measures did limit damage and avoided the killing of antlered bull elk. Because the herd will continue to grow, however, the problem was not solved and will only increase in the future.

How Many Elk Should There Be?

The consultant who surveyed the Pine Ridge stakeholders reported that: “One respondent specifically discussed the carrying capacity of the land to support a growing herd and the social carrying capacity, described as the capacity of landowners to accommodate elk on their property. Social carrying capacity varies from landowner to landowner, but responding to a growing herd size and related issues often requires a collective carrying capacity, e.g., agreement among landowners on how to address the issues.”

At a subsequent meeting of the working group, someone asked, “Why doesn’t FWP just determine the carrying capacity?” FWP’s Regional Supervisor Harvey Nyberg and FWP Commission Chair Dan Walker explained that carrying capacity depends on the physical capability of the land as well as the values and sentiments of the landowners. There is no simple formula for carrying capacity that addresses both the physical and social aspects of the issue.


  • Interviews with Al Christophersen, Jodie Canfield, USFS; Mike Korn, FWP; Anne Cossitt, Cossitt Consulting; Ron Marcoux, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
  • “Bighorn season a first in Elkhorn Mountains,” by Thomas Mendyke, Helena Independent Record, 9/19/02
  • “Elkhorn forest plan moves forward,” by Eve Byron, Helena Independent Record, 12/12/02
  • “Road Closures Secure Winter Range in Montana,” by Lee Cromrich, Bugle (published by Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation), March-April 2001
  • “The Elkhorn Mountains: Past, Present, and Future,” program script by Jodie Canfield, Elkhorn Coordinator, Helena and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forests
  • “Reviewing Management in the Elkhorns: Final Recommendations,” Elkhorn Mountains Working Group, June 26, 2002
  • “Farmers fight night raids on crops as harvest nears,” by Brett French, Billings Gazette, September 5, 2002.
  • “Pine Ridge Elk Herd Management: Summary of One-On-One Conversations With Working Group Participants and Recommendations for Next Steps: Draft,” by Cossitt Consulting, September 20, 2002.
  • Meeting Summary, Pine Ridge Elk Working Group, September 24, 2002, prepared by Cossitt Consulting.

This vignette was completed in October 2003.