Elk caught in refuge ditch at Lost Trail

elk lost trail
A six-point bull elk sits trapped in a muddy irrigation ditch at Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge last Saturday. The elk was rescued single-handedly by refuge worker John Ringham, who tied a rope around its head and pulled it out with a pickup truck.


By David Reese, Montana Living

The ditch that cuts through Lost Trail National Wildlife Refuge in Pleasant Valley is long and deep, its contents obscured by the tall grass that surrounds it.

Look closer, though, and you see that the ditch is a long, meandering graveyard.

Elk carcasses lie stretched out and scattered on top of the black bog, their bones picked clean by coyotes. A mule deer skull sits nearby, its antlers eaten away - another grim reminder of death.

Wide holes in the ditch's floating peat bog show where animals broke through and couldn't get out, trapped in a slow death. Refuge worker Loren Clary steps down from his tractor to show where he's found the animals. Standing in the ditch, several feet below the surface of the surrounding ground, we get a whiff of the stench from a dead cow elk and a calf. Judging from its size, the cow elk was several years old.

"The coyotes come through here every night and clean [the ditch] out pretty good," says Clary, who has been running heavy equipment to fill in the ditch, which drains Dahl Lake.

The problem with the ditch was discovered last week, when refuge personnel were filling in the ditch as part of an effort to help Dahl Lake refill itself.

Personnel found a trapped cow elk and pulled it out with an ATV. Two days later, refuge worker John Ringham found a six-point bull elk trapped in the bog and single-handedly rescued the bull by lassoing its antlers and pulling it out with his truck. (A 14-year-old hunter reportedly shot at a "muddy six point" later that day, the Inter Lake learned.)

What began as a project to help create additional wetlands at Dahl Lake turned into a major project to help protect the local elk and deer herds.

Because the bottom of the deep ditch is hidden by tall grass, "We didn't even know this was happening," Lost Trail refuge manager Ray Washtak said. The mud in the ditch is "like a combination of quick sand and wet cement."

Although refuge managers did not know it, the ditch had become a major obstacle for the local big-game herd, which uses the valley as a travel corridor between the safety of heavily timbered ridges nearby.

"They can get back to the edge [of the ditch], but they just can't get that last little bit to get out," Clary added, pointing to where an animal had entered, circled to the other side, fell through and died.

The 7,800-acre refuge is home to about 300 head of elk, one of the largest herds in Western Montana. The ditch also is used by other wildlife. "There was a big wolf track in here the other day," Clary said.

THE DITCH was built in 1954 for flood irrigation when the refuge was a private cattle ranch. This week, work will be completed on filling in 1.6 miles of the ditch just downstream from Dahl Lake. The remaining mile or so of ditch slso will be filled in, and the National Resource Conservation Service is looking for a contractor to complete the job, according to Washtak.

While filling in the ditch will help, certain portions of the ditch - especially around Dahl Lake - are too soft to get heavy equipment into. Washtak is trying to think of another way to protect animals from the ditch, such as a high "buffalo fence" such as those used at the National Bison Range.

The refuge has been a major project for the Flathead chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The chapter has helped removed miles of dangerous barbed-wire fencing that often entangles elk when they try to cross it.

The chapter also has helped with funding of replanting native grasses, to offset damage by non-native knapweed.

Only seven years ago, Dahl Lake was filled beyond its brim with abundant spring runoff. Several years of drought, though, have reduced the lake level and its shorelines to muddy flats. Washtak hopes filling in the ditch will help Dahl Lake retain its water and provide additional habitat for the many species of migratory waterfowl, songbirds and other nongame wildlife that use it.

"We're trying to save wildlife and restore the lake," Washtak said.

In the meantime, though, Washtak and his workers will now be monitoring the ditch every day to look for trapped animals. "We'll keep doing that until it freezes or we find another solution."

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