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The Elk are There

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors March–April 2013 issue

Didn’t get your elk? I can sympathize, having been blanked myself many times over the years.

Not getting an elk can be chalked up to bad luck, tough hunting conditions, lack of effort, or difficulty obtaining access to private land. But—with exceptions in some areas where wolves and other predators are taking a bite out of populations—it’s not because of too few elk.

Montana has no overall elk shortage. Biologists estimate that as many as 150,000 roamed across the state last fall before hunting season. And the population has remained relatively steady for most of the past 20 years.

That’s only a fraction of the elk’s presettlement population, but it’s an incredible rebound from 100 or so years ago.

One estimate places only 50,000 elk remaining in all of North America at the turn of the 20th century. Compare that with a guess of 10 million elk roaming the continent before European settlement.
In Montana at the time of Lewis and Clark, there were almost certainly more elk than today. Vast open prairies of grass, cottonwood bottoms, and badlands made eastern and central parts of pre-Montana a paradise for game animals.

By comparison, the heavily timbered western region was poor elk habitat. The animals were present but not in numbers found on the prairie.

Then came the settlers, and Montana’s game animal populations started to decline. By the early 1900s only small herds of elk remained—around Yellowstone National Park, along the Continental Divide, and in a few other remote mountainous areas where they could escape hunters.

In 1910 fewer than 5,000 elk were scattered over 25,000 square miles in the state’s northwestern region. And elk had all but disappeared from eastern Montana.

That’s when Montanans began transplanting elk from near and within Yellowstone National Park. The first effort moved elk from Gardiner to the Butte area. It proved so successful and popular that sportsmen and landowners in other parts of the state wanted to reestablish herds.

Within ten years, elk were transplanted to the Highwood Mountains east of Great Falls, then to the Little Belt Mountains in 1928, to the Big Belt and Judith Mountains in 1935, and to the Missouri Breaks in 1951.

Most elk trapping and transplanting stopped in 1972. It wasn’t needed anymore. Elk were doing fine on their own.

In most cases these days, elk numbers in various parts of the state are largely based on social factors—a balance of what hunters want and ranchers and farmers will tolerate. Agricultural interests often push for fewer elk, which compete with their cattle for pasture and crops; sportsmen ask for more.

Montana’s landscape could support many more elk than the current population. Hunters who didn’t get an elk this year likely believe more is better. Many landowners who would have to host those extra animals on their property say: No thanks, fewer is just fine.

Both sides have usually been willing to give a little, resulting in the overall elk population we have today.

That cooperation among Montanans has taken us from a closed hunting season in 1893 for lack of elk to today’s healthy elk population. That incredible restoration came about thanks to landowners and hunters working together.

These are the good old days of elk hunting, whether you got your elk or not.Bear bullet

Bruce Auchly manages the regional Information and Education Program in Great Falls.

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