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Bull elk

Conservation > Species Elk

Elk (Cervus canadensis) are one of the largest terrestrial mammals in North America and an icon of big-game hunting and conservation. 

The depletion of Montana's wildlife, including the noticeable decline of elk herds on the landscape, during the 1800's and early 1900's inspired the beginning of Montana's conservation movement during the first half of the 20th Century.

Today, Montana is home to one of the largest elk populations in the country.

Managing Montana’s elk populations at levels compatible with other land uses and meeting the current and future demand for hunting and other recreation has become increasingly complex, demanding increased comprehensive planning. FWP has operated under some form of elk plan since 1978. In 2005, Montana adopted a new, comprehensive elk plan. In 2020, a citizens group assembled to provide overarching elk management guidance for the state of Montana, including a forthcoming update to the state's Elk Management Plan.

 

Management & Conservation

Elk survey

Population & Distribution

Charts & Maps >
Group zoom meeting screenshot

Elk Management Plan Initial Guidance

Citizens Group >
Bull elk

Elk Hunting

Species Guide >

Brucellosis Surveillance

Brucellosis is a contagious bacterial infection in domestic animals, wildlife and humans worldwide. The disease can result in abortions in some pregnant animals, including domestic cattle, bison and elk. It can also result in serious financial burdens to cattle producers, potentially resulting in quarantine of a herd, increased testing and vaccination costs and possible difficulty in trade with other states and countries. The potential for transmission to livestock has led FWP to investigate the status of brucellosis in some elk herds near Yellowstone National Park.

Because brucellosis can negatively impact Montana livestock producers, influence the acceptability of elk on the landscape, impact the overall health of wildlife populations and remains a health concern for people, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is working with the Montana Department of Livestock, livestock producers and sportsmen and women to better delineate the geographic distribution of the disease in elk, understand elk-cattle transmission risk and ways to mitigate that risk, measure its prevalence in elk populations and understand factors that may influence changes in prevalence and distribution of the disease.

FWP along with informal input from the Elk Management Guidelines in Areas with Brucellosis Working Group annually assembles an "Elk Management in Areas With Brucellosis Work Plan (PDF)" which guides implementation of potential management actions within the Designated Surveillance Area or in other specific areas where brucellosis-exposed elk have been confirmed within the previous five years. The work plan requires annual adoption by the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Surveillance for brucellosis across Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana has largely relied on collection of samples from hunter harvested animals. Due to difficulties in obtaining a large enough sample size from harvested elk in Montana, since 2011, FWP has embarked on a surveillance and research project that involves capturing, testing, and radio collaring elk from areas on the edge of the known distribution of brucellosis. 

In the winter of 2020/2021, FWP embarked on its eleventh year of targeted brucellosis surveillance and research in southwestern Montana. One hundred adult cow elk were captured in the Horseshoe Hills of HD312 and 100 adult cow elk were captured in the Ashland area of HD704. All elk tested negative for exposure to brucellosis. In total, 29 cow elk in the Horseshoe Hills and 40 cow elk in the Ashland area received GPS collars in an effort to enhance our understanding of elk movement patterns within these populations, evaluate the risk elk may pose for brucellosis transmission to cattle or other elk, and improve overall elk population management.

 

Reports

Statewide Management Plan

Research

Current Research

 

Elk Habitat Management in Montana

As part of a Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) initiative to identify elk migration corridors and winter ranges and work cooperatively with partners to conserve these important habitats, there is a need to collect and assess elk movement data in eastern Montana.

 

Our first goal is to delineate migration corridors and seasonal ranges of the Custer and Missouri Breaks elk populations. These areas have been selected based on the local needs identified by MFWP management biologists, and where considerable community, conservation partner, and agency interest in elk habitat conservation exists.

 

Our second goal is to evaluate the effects of hunter access management and other important factors on elk habitat selection using location data from GPS collared elk in the Custer and Missouri Breaks study areas. Our objective is to identify important landscape and environmental factors affecting elk habitat selection in these areas, particularly during the fall hunting seasons. If factors such as security, forage, and hunter access can be identified and related to habitat selection, managers may use this information to manipulate these factors to increase the amount of time elk spend on public land, thereby furthering opportunity for hunters using public lands and reducing game damage incurred on adjacent private lands.

Project Personnel
Dr. Kelly Proffitt

Wildlife Research Biologist

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Shane Petch

Research Technician

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Jay Rotella

Professor

Department of Ecology

Montana State University, Bozeman

Elizabeth Krieger

M.S. Candidate

Department of Ecology 

Montana State University, Bozeman

Project Funders

Funding was provided by revenues from the sale of Montana hunting and fishing licenses and matching Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration grants to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Funding was also provided by the Bureau of Land Management.

 

Montana Blackfoot Elk Study

The purpose of this project is to evaluate the effects of a recent, large-scale wildfire on the elk population in the Blackfoot Clearwater area of west-central Montana. In August and September of 2017, the 160,000-acre Rice Ridge fire burned the majority of the historical summer range of the Blackfoot-Clearwater elk population. Fire severity varied across the area, with low, mid, and high severity wildlife burning approximately 80% of the elk summer range. Our goal in this project is to evaluate the effects of low severity and high severity wildlife on elk forage and distribution to better understand the effects of wildfire on elk populations. To assess post-fire effects of a large-scale wildfire on the elk population and habitat over the first four years post-fire, we are evaluating elk movements using a combination of GPS collared individuals and camera traps positioned across the study area. We are also evaluating the forage quality, abundance, and phenology within the Blackfoot-Clearwater elk range to better understand the seasonal effects of low severity and high severity wildfire on forage in the years shortly after fire.

Project Personnel
Dr. Kelly Proffitt

Wildlife Research Biologist

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Benjamin Jimenez

Research Technician
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Scott Eggeman

Area Wildlife Biologist

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Dr. Joshua Millspaugh

Professor

University of Montana

Lauren Snobl

M.S. Candidate

University of Montana

 
Project Funders

Project funding was provided by revenues from the sale of Montana hunting and fishing licenses and matching Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration grants to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Additional funding was provided by the Campfire Foundation and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. 

 

Effects of Changes in Travel Management and Hunter Access on Elk Distributions in the Northern Sapphire Mountains

The purpose of this project is to evaluate the effects of changes in travel management and hunter access on male and female elk movements and hunting-season distributions in the North Sapphire Mountains. This project follows the North Sapphire Elk Research Project, which produced several important findings on the effects of forage, security, and hunter access on elk migratory behaviors and hunting-season distributions. Since the completion of that project in 2016, there have been substantial changes in travel management on public lands, hunter access management on private lands, and hunting regulations. Our goals in this project include the following:

  1. Evaluate if these changes affect previously documented patterns of elk migratory behaviors and distributions during the hunting seasons.
  2. Conduct a habitat conservation assessment to identify important core seasonal use areas and the movement corridors connecting these areas, and evaluate if these areas or corridors have changed since 2014-2016.
  3. Evaluate factors such as age and individual resource selection behaviors affecting bull vulnerability to harvest.
  4. Conduct a hunter/private landowner attitude and opinion survey to assess current attitudes towards elk management.
  5. Provide recommendations regarding management of travel, hunter access, and security areas to benefit male and female elk.
Project Reports

HD 204 Hunter Landowner Survey (PDF)

Project Personnel: 
Dr. Kelly Proffitt

Wildlife Research Biologist

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Rebecca Mowry

Area Wildlife Biologist

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Dr. Michael Mitchell

Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit Leader (Retired)

University of Montana

Peter Mumford

M.S. Candidate

University of Montana

Craig Jourdonnais

MPG Ranch

Philip Ramsey

MPG Ranch

Project Funders

Project funding provided by revenues from the sale of Montana hunting and fishing licenses and matching Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration grants to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Funding also provided by MPG Ranch, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, and Back Country Hunters and Anglers. 

 

Completed Research

Evaluating carnivore harvest as a tool for increasing elk calf survival and recruitment

Annual Reports

North Sapphire Elk Research Project

Elkhorn Mountains Elk Research Project

Bitterroot Elk Study

 

Hunter Access and Fall Elk Distribution in the Missouri Breaks

Additional Completed Research

Resources