In 2011, SCI Foundation partnered with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the University of Montana to investigate the influence of predation, habitat and nutrition on elk population dynamics in the southern Bitterroot Valley. After four years, the research is complete. There are some important outcomes that are being used to change regulations and better manage elk, carnivores and habitat.
DNA-based estimates of adult mountain lions in Montana’s southern Bitterroot Valley showed much higher numbers than originally predicted. Initially, wolves were linked to the decrease in the elk population. However, researchers intensively monitored of elk mortalities, which showed mountain lions, not wolves, were the dominant predator in the Bitterroot Valley. The Mountain lion population estimates generated were used in the season setting process for mountain lion seasons in west-central Montana.
Additional results about mountain lion and wolf populations were taken into consideration as managers attempted to find management strategies that would balance carnivore populations with fluctuating prey populations. Quota systems and harvest levels of both mountain lions and wolves have been liberalized since 2011.
Other results from the assessment of adult female body condition and pregnancy rates have raised awareness of potential habitat issues. Biologists now have an increased understanding of the influences of maternal nutritional condition. The project contributed to a growing amount of research that will assist wildlife managers throughout the northern Rockies and western US.
Overall, this project has identified the complexities of elk population dynamics in a multiple carnivore system, and contributed to the development and implementation of the integrated management of elk, carnivores and habitat in Montana.
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