Wildlife Management Demystified

A guide to how FWP conserves Montana’s wildlife species and their habitats.
By Sam Curtis

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
September–October 2003

A rock cliff rises up in front of us. Duffy, a private pilot contracted by Montana FWP, drops the four-seat helicopter to the left in what begins as a free-fall but quickly be-comes a roller-coaster ride. We fly up and over pine cones on the branches of tree tops on a ridge that suddenly falls away to the next canyon.

“There go four of them to the left,” I hear Dave Pac, the front seat observer, say through my headset. Duffy puts the helicopter into one of his spin-circle dives that ties my insides into knots. I close my eyes to stop the landscape from whirling.

“I’ve got two fawns and two does over here,” says Pac, an FWP research biologist who has been studying mule deer in the Bridger Mountains for more than 25 years. His voice holds a calm incongruous to the aerial acrobatics Mark Duffy is maneuvering us through with breathtaking skill.

Does this really have anything to do with wildlife management? I ask myself as I clutch the harness even more tightly.

It isn’t just the idle question of an aerial ’fraidy cat. Though biologists and other wildlife professionals toss around the term casually, most people, even those keenly interested in wild animals, don’t understand what “wildlife management” means.

Where did the idea get started? How does it work? Who does the work? And, as we drop into another controlled plunge to count and classify deer in the Bridgers, I have to ask myself, is it really even necessary?

Wildlife Squandered
Modern wildlife management has its roots in the half-century of unrestrained commercial and “sport” hunting that decimated wildlife populations in this country from roughly 1850 to 1900. In the aftermath of that extravagant squandering of wild game, sportsmen and conservationists were shaken to realize that wildlife was not a limitless resource. They began to take action.

As early as 1872, the Territorial Legis-lature of Montana established its first closed season on big game. By 1900, the federal Lacey Act prohibited interstate traffic in illegally taken wild animals. The following year, Montana’s Governor Richards appointed the first state game warden, marking the origin of what would eventually become the state’s Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

However, these and other early attempts to address dwindling wildlife populations were largely reactive, political, and unscientific. It wasn’t until the 1933 publication of Aldo Leopold’s book Game Management that, in Leopold’s words, “the art of making the land produce sustained annual crops of wild game for recreational use” became the basic goal of wildlife management.
To achieve that goal, Leopold espoused the manipulation of both wildlife populations and wildlife habitats. Some people questioned whether this kind of hands-on management was necessary. Would not such manipulation disrupt the “balance of nature”? Leopold’s reply, as he put it in a 1927 letter to the head of Glacier National Park, was that “the balance of nature in any strict sense has been upset long ago, and there is no such thing to maintain. The only option we have is to create a new balance objectively determined upon for each area in accordance with the intended use of that area.”

This new balance, as it has evolved in the practice of modern wildlife management, strives to maintain wild game populations at or near the highest numbers possible without degrading the health of the animals, harming the habitats in which they live, or causing excessive depredation on landowners. To strike this balance, Montana FWP monitors wildlife populations, adjusts wildlife harvests, conducts research, protects and improves wildlife habitat, and provides access and information to hunters and wildlife watchers. It’s not an exact science, but judging by the increase in wildlife numbers and hunting opportunities over the past 50 years, the state’s wildlife management program appears to be working well. Here’s how it works:

Monitor Wildlife Populations
Wild game populations fluctuate in response to changing environmental factors, disease, and human manipulation in the form of hunting seasons and habitat alteration. But how much are populations going up or down? And why? Wildlife managers need to monitor wildlife numbers so they have a sense of how various species are faring from year to year. This allows them to formulate management policies that keep wildlife populations at appropriate levels.

Counting wildlife is not easy, as my helicopter ride suggests. But, historically, aerial counts of deer and elk concentrated on winter ranges have proven accurate for monitoring population trends, if not exact numbers.

“We’re also always looking at other data to see if our aerial count information is getting verified by other checks and balances,” says Ken Hamlin, a veteran deer and elk biologist in Bozeman. He and other biologists consider the results of ground counts, statewide harvest questionnaires, and check station information, along with landowner and hunter observations, when compiling population and classification figures.

Different wildlife species require different ways of monitoring. To keep tabs on bear numbers, for example, biologists attract the animals with bait surrounded by strands of barbed wire. By examining DNA in snagged hair samples, they can identify and keep track of individual bruins and estimate the area’s population. Sage grouse, on the other hand, are counted when they gather at traditional spring mating grounds, and their sex and age classifications are determined by examining the wings of birds shot by hunters in the fall.

By monitoring game birds and animals to measure increases or decreases in their numbers, or changes in their sex and age ratios, wildlife managers can then adjust harvests through hunting regulations to keep populations from growing too large or dropping too low.

Adjust Harvest
Once they know how populations are doing from year to year, biologists determine wildlife management objectives for game animals living in a specific area. One goal is to ensure there are not too many or too few animals living in the available habitat.

“We conduct habitat condition and trend surveys to determine what the land can support and whether it’s deteriorating or improving over time,” says Glenn Erickson, who for years was chief of FWP’s Wildlife Division Management Bureau.

That information helps wildlife biologists decide whether to increase or decrease game harvests in specific areas. But habitat condition isn’t the only factor they consider.

“Sometimes our objectives are biologically driven,” Erickson says. “We may be trying to maintain some kind of ratio of bucks to does in order to enhance buck hunting opportunities.”

Harvest objectives are also influenced by landowner tolerance for wildlife on their property. “We know that without the support of landowners, we can’t maintain wildlife populations long-term,” Erickson says. “So we try to deal with landowners and their problems, such as game damage to crops, and adjust our hunting seasons and regulations to try to alleviate and minimize that damage.”

No matter whether biologists are trying to increase or decrease the size of a particular deer or elk herd, they have to account for a wide range of factors when setting hunting regulations to achieve certain harvest rates. As an example, Erickson points to recent mild falls and winters that have allowed many elk populations to grow. To keep elk numbers in check, managers have increased the number of antlerless elk licenses, started the season earlier to keep the animals off agricultural crops, and issued late permits so hunters can take advantage of winter weather that moves elk down from inaccessible areas.

“Setting hunting seasons and harvest objectives is not an exact science,” Erickson says. “That’s why we need research biologists to help us understand such things as population dynamics, habitat use, and the distribution and movements of these animals.”

Conduct Research
Research is essential for understanding the many unknowns of wildlife management. Which hunting regulations produce more trophy elk? How many mountain lions are in various parts of the state? Do wolves reduce elk populations? Such are the questions that researchers aim to answer.
FWP research biologists study game animals ranging from pine martens to prairie grouse, but some of the most extensive research focuses on the state’s most abundant and widely distributed wildlife: mule deer and white-tailed deer. Beginning in the mid-1970s, FWP conducted a series of landmark studies to gather information on deer ecology in the various environments deer occupy across the state. The goal: to better understand deer and deer populations so the species could be managed more effectively.

Since 1994, deer research biologist Carolyn Sime has been studying white-tailed deer in the coniferous mountain terrain of northwestern Montana. Her findings, like those of other researchers, could have practical management implications. For example, Sime’s research shows that winter snow depth, duration, and water content—all of which affect deer movement and fawn survival—could be used to estimate the ratio of does to fawns in the spring, and, therefore, how hunting regulations might be adjusted the next fall.

“When making management decisions, we need to consider the specific environment deer live in rather than apply the same management principles to all deer everywhere,” Sime says.

To make her point, Sime says her research shows that, unlike deer in agricultural areas, whitetails in forested northwestern Montana migrate, moving 20 to 30 miles from summer to winter range.

“When it snows and gets cold, they move to low elevations in search of mature trees with thick canopies,” she says. “The trees catch snow, preventing it from piling on the ground and making it difficult for deer to move and feed. What this tells us is that how forests are managed on whitetail winter range in this region can have a huge effect on whitetail numbers.”

Protect and Improve Wildlife Habitat
Though revolutionary 50 years ago, the notion that healthy wildlife populations need healthy habitat is fundamental today to anyone who has seen ducks thrive in restored wetlands or elk disappear when forests become subdivisions. This basic connection between wildlife and their living environment is why protecting and improving wildlife habitat is an essential part of wildlife management.

To protect habitat from suburban development, FWP has purchased land to preserve vital and threatened wildlife winter ranges. The department also negotiates conservation easements with willing landowners (see story, page 28). Easements pay ranchers to keep their land as open space and employ wildlife-friendly agriculture practices such as rest-rotation grazing, which regulates the timing and duration of cattle grazing in separate pastures.

FWP biologists also improve wildlife habitat by restoring wetlands, conducting prescribed burns to rejuvenate prairies and pastures, and encouraging landowners to retain brushy fencerows where pheasants hang out. Habitat protection and improvement on forested land typically includes modifications to logging practices, such as maintaining a certain number of trees per acre and a specific forest canopy density in order to, for example, protect whitetail winter range.

Provide Access and Information
Creating healthy habitat and wild animal populations is one challenge. Finding ways for people to get close to that wildlife is another one altogether.

“Access is critical to wildlife management,” says John Ensign, FWP regional wildlife manager for southeastern Montana, where 76 percent of the land is privately owned. For example, in the mid-1970s hunters bought antelope hunting licenses but then found few places to hunt because private land was either closed or open only for a fee.

“We started looking into ways to provide incentive to landowners to allow public hunting,” says Ensign. “That’s the origin of our Block Management Program. If we found several adjoining landowners, particularly adjacent to public land, willing to allow public hunting, we could have large ‘blocks’ of land open for hunters to hunt wild game that otherwise would have been inaccessible.”

The Block Management Program currently provides public hunting access to over 8.5 million acres of private and isolated public land throughout Montana. Through the program, FWP also helps individual landowners manage public hunting on their property under yearly, customized contracts.

Hunting access is also made available through most conservation easements, as well as the Upland Game Bird Habitat Enhancement Project, which requires that landowners who receive FWP funds for improving or protecting pheasant and other game bird habitat on their property allow public hunting there.

In addition, FWP’s Access Montana Program establishes access corridors across private land so that hunters can reach more than 35 million acres of federal, state, and tribal lands.

Wildlife management can’t work successfully without the support of an informed public. Montana has too few biologists for FWP to manage wildlife on its own. That’s one reason the department places a high priority on explaining its management practices, proposals, and issues to hunters and other department stakeholders. FWP information officers in every region announce new and changing policies and regulations. Field biologists hold public meetings to explain proposed hunting limits and seasons and to listen to public comments. FWP sponsors hunter education classes for approximately 6,500 youngsters each year. And it provides schools with educational materials to teach students about natural history and wildlife management.

“Our job is to publicize Montana’s wildlife issues so we have a well-informed public helping us decide how wildlife should best be managed and helping us pass the legislation necessary to make that happen,” says Ron Aasheim, who heads conservation education for the department.

Without professional wildlife management, most of Montana’s wild animal populations would likely survive, but they wouldn’t be at levels most people would like to see. Some species would decline, disappointing hunters and wildlife watchers. Others would overpopulate and invade ranchers’ pastures and suburban backyards. Populations of others would bust some years and boom others.

But when properly managed, using the components explained here, wildlife populations can be increased, reduced, or maintained at levels that keep wildlife fans happy without causing intolerable problems for ranchers and others on whose land much of the state’s wildlife lives. That’s been the goal of wildlife managers for the past half-century, and it will continue to be so for the next one.Bear bullet

Sam Curtis is a freelance writer living in Bozeman.