Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks plans to soon radio-collar 50 cow elk in the Missouri River Breaks.
The two-year project will study fall elk distribution in Hunting Districts 621 and 622 and the western portion of HD 631.
“Elk populations have been at high levels in portions of the Breaks for a number of years,” said Scott Thompson, FWP’s Malta-area biologist. “Last winter’s aerial elk survey in HDs 621 and 622 indicated the population remains above objective with 1,935 elk observed in the two districts. Despite FWP issuing a liberal number of cow elk licenses, populations have only slightly decreased over the years.”
State biologists and hunters in the Breaks often ask the same question: Where do elk go during the fall hunting season?
By outfitting the 50 elk with radio collars that collect the animal’s location every hour on a store-on-board global positioning (GPS) unit, biologists will be able to look at elk movements in this part of the Breaks and Fort Peck Reservoir over two years, including two full hunting seasons.
“Comparing these elk movements to private and public land access, open roads, hunting district boundaries and habitat characteristics will shed some light on what the primary factors are that determine elk distribution in the fall,” Thompson explained. “This information will greatly help us determine management recommendations for future license quotas and hunting seasons.”
Because the collars will be on the cow elk for two years, FWP biologists will also be able to refine what they know about elk movements and habitat use during other critical times of the year -- including calving and wintering.
Thompson said the collaring will be conducted by a contracted helicopter crew that will net-gun the cow elk from the air. Once each animal is safely secured, FWP biologists will then examine the cows for body condition and collect blood samples for pregnancy rates and possible disease exposure. In addition to acquiring the monitoring collars, the elk will also be ear-tagged.
The radio-collaring operation will be conducted in southern Phillips and Valley counties in the eastern portion of Hunting District 622 in the Larb Hills, as well as HD 621 on the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR) sometime between late January and early February. Captures will be conducted on public lands, as well as private lands where permission has already been secured.
“We really want to thank the private landowners that have allowed us to work on their properties,” Thompson said.
In addition to the federal Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service allowing the work to be done on public lands that they administer, the CMR is a critical funding partner, Thompson said.
FWP will provide project updates through the Missouri River Breaks Elk Working Group and the agency’s Region 6 Citizens Advisory Council, both of which meet regularly to discuss elk management.
“We also look forward to sharing all of the results of the study with our partners and the public when the project is completed,” Thompson said.