The most-recent aerial surveys of elk populations in the Region 6 portions of the Missouri River Breaks and the Bears Paw Mountains south of Havre indicate a sizeable increase in animals in both areas over survey numbers that were last gathered.
According to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 6 Wildlife Program Manager Mark Sullivan, biologists flew the surveys in Breaks Hunting Districts 621 and 622 and then in HDs 631 and 632. A total of 1,950 elk were counted in HD 621 and 622, and a total of 646 elk were observed this winter in HDs 631 and 632. In the Bears Paw Mountains survey area, a total of 832 elk were counted this year in HD 680 and 690.
In HDs 621 and 622, the 2014 survey numbers are comparable to the numbers gathered two years ago. In HDs 631 and 632, observed numbers this year are up approximately 45 percent from the last count. Elk numbers in the Bears Paw Mountains study area are up 127 percent from the last count and 134 percent above the long-term average.
Sullivan said elk population data for these surveys, as in past years, should be considered conservative since not all elk on the ground can be spotted during the flights. Survey conditions ranged from good to excellent, depending on the depth of snow cover, which helps observers spot both animals and tracks.
The surveys in the Breaks hunting districts were flown in February, while the Bears Paw area survey was conducted in early March. The counts were completed by FWP biologists Scott Thompson of Malta, Scott Hemmer of Havre and Drew Henry of Glasgow.
The elk surveys were coordinated with others Breaks hunting districts, including HD 410, to avoid duplicating animal observations. There was one group of 50-100 elk tracks crossing the Missouri River southward into HD 410 during the HD 621 survey, and those animals are thought to have been accounted for in that FWP Region 4 district. Similarly, a group of 217 elk crossed east into HD 631 after being observed in HD 622 the day prior. This group is accounted for only in the HD 622 survey data.
The elk cow-calf ratio in HDs 621 and 622 in this year’s count is 37 calves per 100 cows, and the bull-cow ratio is 51 bulls to 100 cows. In HDs 631 and 632, this year’s cow-calf ratio is estimated at 52 calves per 100 cows, and the bull-cow ratio is 45 bulls per 100 cows.
In the Bears Paw Mountains survey area, the current cow-calf ratio is 39 cows per 100 calves, which is down 25 percent from the long-term average. The HD 680 and 690 bull-cow ratio this year is 63 bulls to 100 cows, which is 11 percent below the long-term average. In particular, the cow-calf numbers represent recent reproductive success.
Sullivan said the survey zone in the Bears Paw Mountains area was expanded slightly further south along Cow Creek this year because of previous elk observations in the area. Elk “B” licenses in HD 680 and 690 were increased from 150 licenses to 300 licenses in 2010, and a management season was implemented in part of the district this past winter.
In spite of the management changes, however, elk numbers in HD 680 and 690 have remained well above the district’s management objective of 250 animals. The high numbers are in large part due to a lack of access for public hunting in the area.
Mule deer observations were also tracked in the Breaks hunting districts. Sullivan said the deer were not sought out, but counted incidentally to the elk surveys. A total of 916 mule deer were counted HD 631 and 632. An additional 1,118 mule deer were observed during the surveys in HD 621 and HD 622. This was compared to 551 mule deer observed during the 2012 Breaks survey in those districts.
Bighorn sheep also were surveyed across all habitat in sheep Hunting District 622 from Mickey and Brandon Buttes to the Bone Trail area east of Timber Creek. Sullivan said a record-high total of 299 sheep was observed, as compared to the 218 sheep that were spotted during the 2012 survey.
Ninety-eight rams were counted this year, putting the overall ram-ewe ratio at 70 rams per 100 ewes. In 2012, 78 rams were observed, which put the ratio at 85 rams per 100 ewes. Lamb ratios have also stayed relatively high, with 64 lambs observed this year. This year’s lamb-ewe ratio is 47 lambs per 100 ewes. Sullivan said that’s compared to a 51 to 100 lamb-to-ewe ratio in 2012, and a long-term average of 42 lambs per 100 ewes.
Nearly all of the increase in sheep numbers in recent years is occurring in the Larb Hills and Ironstake Ridge portion of the habitat, with overall numbers there increasing 55 percent between 2012 and 2014.
In the Mickey and Brandon Butte area, sheep numbers have been stagnant-to-decreasing since 2006. Sullivan said the decrease could be attributed to several factors, including past over-utilization of habitat on this relatively small range, as well as predation.