Tobacco Plains Elk - An International Resource
by Tim Thier, FWP Area Biologist
The management of elk in the Tobacco Valley in north Lincoln County presents more than the usual number of challenges for wildlife managers.
Nestled between Eureka and the British Columbia border, wintering elk numbers in the past 25 years have grown from approximately 100 to over 800 and fluctuate depending on winter severity. Trying to find a balance in the management of this herd has been a work in progress.
Historically, not a lot of information exists on elk presence in this area, although some level of use probably occurred. The mountains adjacent to the valley were better known for caribou than elk. The Kootenai or Ktunaxa Indians, the original residents of this area, would go to great lengths and risks to hunt buffalo on the eastern plains each year in order to supplement their protein needs.
As more people began moving west and colonizing this area, the abundance of big game diminished as settlers struggled to feed their families. Conditions worsened even more in the 1930s during the Great Depression. However, as early as 1912 efforts were underway to restore elk to northwest Montana with the release of 31 elk from Yellowstone National Park to Glacier National Park, east of the Tobacco Valley. In 1927 and 1928, an additional 56 elk were released in Wolf Creek to the south. Transplants continued to the south and west of the Tobacco Valley from 1952 until 1988, with the final release consisting of 31 elk east of Murphy Lake from the National Bison Range.
Elk numbers wintering in the Tobacco Valley have been variable, with 100-200 estimated in the early 1990s. During the severe winter of 1996-97, this number swelled to over 400. By 2012, over 800 elk were observed during a single spring flight, representing a total population of probably over 1,000. While a welcome sight by many, not everyone shared this view. Area ranchers were expressing increasing frustrations with that many elk on the landscape as the elk damaged fences and haystacks and competed with cattle for forage. In an effort to address their concerns, opportunities to harvest antlerless elk were created and expanded for both the general and a specially created late season.
At the same time, recognizing the importance of the Tobacco Valley for wintering elk, the U.S. Forest Service, working in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, worked many years to maintain and improve wintering elk habitat in the Gateway area northwest of Eureka. This was done primarily through the use of controlled burns that slowed the spread of conifer encroachment and improved the palatability of bitterbrush and grasses. However, in recent years, there has been an ever-increasing amount of smooth brome, a nonnative grass that can cover large areas and is avoided by wintering elk. Areas that had once supported native bunchgrasses, forbs, and bitterbrush that were critical to wintering elk were slowly being converted to a monoculture of smooth brome. In response, the Forest Service is actively testing various treatments in that area to reduce the spread of smooth brome and restore native vegetation.
A common question for many is “whose elk are they?” Given the proximity of the Tobacco Valley to British Columbia, it was expected that at least some of the animals were spending their summers to the north. While elk were creating their share of issues with local ranchers, hunters and others were viewing them as a very valuable resource. In fact, given their proximity to Canada, they were an international resource. This was even further accentuated by the fact that just north of the border is the Tobacco Plains Band of the Ktunaxa Indians Reserve. As a sovereign nation, these native people also have a vested interest in these elk.
Until recent years, the vast majority of the elk that wintered in the Tobacco Valley dispersed to parts unknown in early spring. Now, an increasing number of these elk have decided to become year-round residents, where they are away from most predators and can grow fat on irrigated alfalfa fields. This didn’t sit well with many ranchers, who now have to contend with elk on a year-round basis.
Complicating the issue is the fact that most ranches in the Tobacco Valley are quite small. An increase in private residences interspersed among the agricultural areas has made public hunting a significant safety concern. Ranchers are hesitant to let total strangers hunt on their property due to liability issues associated with hunting with a rifle.
In an effort to gather additional information on these elk, FWP submitted a proposal to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in November of 2013 for financial assistance in the purchase of 6 satellite transmitters in order to gather baseline information on this herd. Elk were captured in February 2015 with the use of large “Clover Traps” baited with hay. Captured elk were then immobilized to facilitate handling. A total of 9 elk were captured in 8 days at 3 different sites within the Tobacco Plains. Two adult cow elk were radio-collared and released at each of the 3 sites.
Figure 1. An adult cow elk captured inside a clover trap on the edge of the Tobacco Plains.
Figure 2. An adult cow elk fitted with a satellite transmitter immediately after release.
Following release, the 6 cow elk were monitored via computer with new locations obtained every 23 hours so that all hours of the day could be sampled. Although a sample of 6 elk is small, it does provide insight to elk movements, habitat use, and survival. A brief summary of the results includes:
- 3 of the collared cow elk were migratory and all 3 moved north into Canada, with one spending 2 consecutive summers in Top of the World Provincial Park, approximately 80 miles from the Tobacco Valley.
- 3 of the cow elk were nonmigratory and stayed within the Tobacco Valley area.
- 4 of the 6 cow elk are known to be dead (2 killed by hunters, 1 killed by a lion, and 1 killed by a vehicle). A 5th elk disappeared suddenly and is feared dead. Only 1 elk is known to be alive and still possesses an active collar (depicted in purple in Figure 3).
- Detailed information on habitat use was obtained.
The summer of 2015 was extraordinarily dry, and the number of complaints from area ranchers reached an all-time high. In response, 6 separate supplemental license game damage hunts were arranged that allowed landowners, people chosen by the landowner, and randomly selected hunters from a game damage roster to shoot antlerless elk on private land beginning September 1. The intent of this game damage hunt was not so much to reduce the number of elk, as it was to move the elk off private land and onto adjacent public lands. From all accounts, this effort appeared somewhat successful in displacing elk, but many elk simply moved to adjacent private property and issues still remained. Approximately 20 elk were killed during the game damage hunt prior to the opening of the general season.
Figure 3. Satellite movements of 6 instrumented collared elk captured north of Eureka.
Figure 4. An example of specific locations from Elk #336 showing habitat use in the Gateway area.
In the fall of 2015, the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission approved new regulations allowing the taking of elk with a rifle outside the 5-week general season during what would be called “Shoulder Seasons.” Hunting could begin as early as August 15 and run as late as February 15. Hunters could apply for special licenses just as they would normally and no preference was given to landowners and their families, unlike the game damage hunts. These new seasons could be tailored to specific areas to provide maximum flexibility in order to achieve specific objectives.
A meeting was held in Eureka with area ranchers and sportsmen in December 2015, and it was agreed to give a shoulder season a try for the Tobacco Plains area, with hunting for antlerless elk to begin August 15, 2016. A total of 50 permits would be awarded for private land only and would be valid for both Hunting Districts 101 and 109. Hunters were encouraged to secure access and form relationships with landowners before applying for permits.
The results of the 2016 hunting season phone surveys have yet to be completed, so it is unknown how many of the 50 license holders for the shoulder season were successful. Discussions with landowners indicate it was quite successful in pushing elk out of agricultural areas in the valley bottom. Few elk had to be killed before they sought refuge elsewhere. Given that these licenses were valid on all private lands, there were few places they could hide except for public land. Also, given that hunting occurred only on private land, there were few conflicts with archers when the archery season opened in September.
In summary, elk management in the Tobacco Valley is a work in progress and poses many challenges. Subdivision of formerly agricultural lands is increasing, and human population growth is altering the landscape. The Tobacco Valley offers a unique bunch grass habitat that exists in few areas of Northwest Montana. This type of habitat is sought out by wintering elk and provides high quality winter range, which is extremely limited. Managing elk in an increasingly urban area with small land ownerships adds additional challenges. But by cooperating with landowners, sportsmen, the Forest Service, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, it is hoped this international resource will continue to prosper with the fewest conflicts possible and allow people to enjoy the elk of the Tobacco Valley.