Monday, February 4, 2008

Study: Elk, cattle could share land

By EVE BYRON - Independent Record - 02/03/08

Researchers say that cattle and elk apparently can peacefully co-exist in the Elkhorn Mountains.

For years, ranchers, hunters and other Elkhorn Mountain users debated whether the 300,000-acre mountain range south of Helena could adequately support both elk and cattle.

In recent drought years, ranchers were told to pull their cattle off public lands early, or take them up later than normal, to ensure elk had enough forage for the winter. That meant ranchers had to feed hay to the cattle or use private grazing grounds longer, which cuts into profits in a business with a slim margin anyway.

As part of an effort to move the conversation forward, the Elkhorn Working Group, composed of ranchers, state and federal officials and others, asked the Ecosystem Research Group to study grazing, grass and the overlap of use between cattle and elk.

“The Elkhorns are a wildlife management unit, which includes elk but also livestock use,” noted Denise Pengroth, the Elkhorns coordinator for the Helena National Forest. “After two years of discussion by the Elkhorn Working Group — which was borne as a result of the conflict between elk use in the Elkhorns and livestock — we felt we needed to understand the distribution of elk and cattle and where they overlap.”

What the study found, according to ERG scientists Mike Hollis and Greg Kennett, is that while both cattle and elk use similar grounds at times, there also are areas where they don’t compete and there seems to be enough forage overall to support them both.

“We have a whole series of specific recommendations that are kind of technical, but the major findings were that you can still manage for those terrific elk herds and accommodate cattle grazing, and not impact the elk herds,” Kennett said.

That finding is important to ranchers like Paul “Brud” Smith of Boulder, who drives his cattle into the upper Elkhorns in the summer for grazing, and shares his private property with the elk in the winter.

“We want this wide-open space, but if you make it too hard for ranchers to exist, pretty soon all we’ll have are subdivisions. That’s my biggest fear,” Smith said. “As ranchers, we love seeing the wildlife — when you’re out there, the wildlife if the icing on the cake — but we need a balance.

“I probably like elk more than most ranchers, but there’s a point where you have to sustain your own operation.”

He noted that growing up in the Boulder area, it was fairly rare to see elk. Their numbers dramatically dropped in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Hollis said.

“In the early 1900s, elk basically were extinct here from heavy mining — they were feeding whole mining camps elk — and harvesting heavily, plus there was the homestead boom and modern weapons,” Hollis said. “Then they got legislative protection, and by the 1960s the populations basically were healthy throughout the state.”

Pengroth said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks estimates about 2,000 elk now roam the Elkhorns, with hunting being the main method of keeping their numbers in check. About 3,400 head of cattle are permitted to graze on public lands during the spring, summer and fall.

Based on the study results, Pengroth said she feels the group now can move away from the livestock-versus-elk debate, and instead focus on creating a healthier overall ecosystem.

That includes stopping the proliferation of trees encroaching onto traditional grasslands around the lower perimeter of the Elkhorns, either by thinning stands or controlled burns, and making a more concerted effort to deal with weeds on both public and private lands.

Smith also wants people to consider whether 2,000 elk is the proper number to manage for, saying he would like to see a number based not only on what forage will allow, but also on landowner tolerance and on hunter and wildlife watchers’ perspectives.

“That number may be more and it may be less,” Smith said. “The study says there’s enough forage … but it’s not just biological. You have to have the whole system work.

“We might have enough food for elk on the Elkhorn Wildlife Management Unit’s federal lands, but one of the big things is the elk don’t know where the management unit stops and private land starts.

“So you might have enough food for elk in the Wildlife Management Unit, but they don’t stay there — they come down to private land. So if you have to manage the whole system, you have to have a cooperative agreement among everyone.”

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or

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