Wildlife experts provide info in Sheridan

Madison County fish and wildlife and were the key topics during a joint meeting Wednesday of the Gravelly Landscape Collaborative and the Ruby Watershed Council at the Philanthropy River Building in Sheridan.

Non-profit Future West coordinated the meeting with the goal to exchange information between the GLC, RWC and other interested agencies and citizens. Bozeman-based Future West provides technical assistance and training to help Northern Rocky Mountain communities deal with growth, protect landscapes and conserve natural values. Representatives of the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, other agencies, businessmen and landowners were present at the meeting.

“This was a high priority for the community – fish and wildlife – and having an opportunity for questions and answers is really helpful for folks to gain a richer understanding of habitat and wildlife populations,” wrote Future West facilitator Jennifer Boyer.

RWC Stewardship Director David Stout reported the council is seeking candidates for three open council seats. Anyone interested in serving on the RWC should contact Stout at 406-842-5741.

MFWP wildlife biologist Dean Waltee reported statistics and analysis of the recently completed hunting seasons. The biologist operated a hunter check station at Alder from 9 a.m. until dark on Saturday and Sunday during the first, third, and final weekends of the general rifle season, and a check-station during three weekend days at the Matador Ranch headquarters at lower Blacktail Creek and one day at the Kidd Rest Area along Interstate 15. Waltee and biologist Craig Fager collected game harvest data and visited with hunters coming from the east and south portions of the Gravelly Elk Management Unit. 

Waltee said hunter participation was comparable to 2016 during the early season, but lower later in the hunting season. “We had a tremendous amount of hunting interest in the Ruby watershed early in the rifle season and it did subsequently reduce as the hunting season wore on, as it does most years,” he said.

The biologist reported overall harvest success at Alder of 14 percent, compared to 16 percent in 2016. Waltee checked 73 elk, compared to 68 in 2016.

“Based on the check station I run at Alder, I checked about an average number of elk there, relative to the five years that I’ve run that, and a few more elk than last year,” he said. “It was about 7 percent higher. Folks reported seeing more elk per day of effort. That’s probably driven by two things – one is elk numbers were higher this fall than they were last fall, and pretty good snow cover midway through the hunting season.”

At the Alder check station, 38 elk were antlered, compared to 31 in 2016, Waltee reported. Thirty-five elk were antlerless, compared to 37 in 2016. Of the 38 antlered elk, 47 percent had at least one antler with at least six antler points, compared to 42 percent in 2016. He visited with 944 hunters, compared to 1,079 last year.  The number of hunters that reported hunting just elk or elk and deer was 845, compared to 981 in 2016.

The biologist reported a significant decline in mule deer harvest this year – 39 compared to last year’s total of 76 at Alder. “Hunters reported seeing about the same number of mule deer they saw last year,” said Waltee. “Spring population trend surveys last year showed mule deer numbers were up about 60 percent relative to 2016. Some of that harvest being down was just hunter selectivity of mule deer was down.”

White-tailed deer harvest was slightly lower than last year. Waltee checked 34 white-tailed deer at Alder, compared to 32 in 2016.  Of those deer, 12 were antlered, compared to 16 in 2016.

Waltee observed hunters were in good spirits. “Hunters were, surprisingly, in a really good mood all hunting season,” he said. “I visited with about 1,650 hunters in the field and I can’t remember one that was truly angry about anything. I didn’t get called a dirty name once all year.”

The biologist said there were few grizzly bear encounters during the hunting season, but one bear was wounded with a pistol shot when hunters made a bad decision. “One of those did occur in the southern Gravelly Mountains, that did lead to an attack,” he said. “The story on that was, a grizzly bear on an elk carcass, and those hunters made the decision to try and run that bear off of that carcass, which is about the worst thing you could do in that scenario. Grizzly bears are extremely defensive and territorial with carcasses.”

When the bear defended its food source, the hunters shot the animal. “Originally, the hunters said they shot at it and missed it and then sprayed it off,” said Waltee. “Then, about two weeks later, the hunter called back and said, ‘Well, we probably hit the bear with a pistol fire.’ So, there was a possibility of a wounded bear out there. That itself is never a good scenario. If you do happen to wound a bear in self-defense, please let the department know about it immediately. This one, it never did arise to any other issue.”

Waltee said grizzly bear numbers are up in western Madison County. “As I am communicating with people about where to pay attention for grizzly bears, I am suggesting they be “bear aware” just about anywhere they go in Southwest Montana,” he said. “The Greenhorns, Tobacco Roots, and anything west of here.”

The biologist said studies have shown bear spray to be more effective than firearms for self-defense. “Personally, I don’t go anywhere recreating without carrying bear spray and I recommend that to folks,” he said. “Some folks are more comfortable carrying a firearm, and that’s certainly their decision and that’s what I tell them. But there’s credible science that suggests bear spray is more effective in preventing injury during an actual bear attack than a firearm. It can stop the bear at a higher percentage than a firearm.” 

Waltee recently submitted two proposals for hunting season changes to the Fish and Wildlife Commission that are open for public comment. The first would allow one bighorn sheep ram license for the Greenhorn bighorn herd. The second would remove the Wall Creek Wildlife Management Area elk B-license (323-00), and make the 399-00 elk B-license as the license valid on and around the WMA. Another Region 3 proposal aims to move the turkey season to a general over-the-counter license; one per hunter; valid in the spring for male-only harvest and in the fall for either-sex harvest, if a hunter does not fill license during the spring season. Public comments can be submitted to the FWC at fwp.mt.gov.

Westslope cutthroat restoration work

MFWP fisheries management biologist Matt Jaeger gave an overview of cutthroat trout restoration efforts in the Ruby River watershed. The expert said just three populations of genetically-pure cutthroat exist in the upper Ruby River watershed in Jack’s Creek, Ramshorn Creek and Greenhorn Creek.

Jaeger said three steps are involved in the process to restore the cutthroat: installation of physical barriers in the stream to prevent encroachment of non-native species, the use of pesticide to eliminate non-native fish species, and restocking of genetically pure cutthroat.

Stream barriers are the most expensive part of a restoration project of this type, according to Jaeger. Typically, a barrier consists of concrete steps with a raised apron, preventing rainbow trout and other non-native species from entering the upstream watershed and allowing a non-hybridized population of native species to become established.

The Nature Conservancy funded installation of a barrier on Jack’s Creek. MFWP installed a barrier on Greenhorn Creek at a cost of $165,000 and a final re-stocking of native trout into that steam will be done next year. The cost estimate for a barrier on Ramshorn Creek is nearly $400,000. MFWP has no current plans to build a barrier on Ramshorn Creek because of the cost and limited length of stream that would be protected.

Jaeger reported efforts to recover populations of Arctic Grayling in the Ruby watershed have been largely successful, and the fish are widely distributed in low density from the Ruby Reservoir to Corral Creek.

“I thought the meeting was a good way to share information between two groups that have been working in similar spheres but have only been tangentially related up to now,” wrote Stout. “I found it productive. My watershed council members aren’t necessarily the land managers who will be in the know about many of the subjects that Dean and Matt presented on at the meeting. I was happy to see them asking questions and the agency staff answering those questions. I thought that Matt’s presentation explaining local westslope cutthroat conservation efforts was particularly important. I was very happy that my council members saw that presentation.”

Stout said RWC’s top goals are to continue work on its watershed restoration plan in the South Tobacco Root Mountains with a strong focus on westslope cutthroat in Ramshorn Creek, monitoring streamflows in the tributaries to the Ruby River that come in below the Ruby Reservoir, and to engage the public in their work in meaningful ways.

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