Lost Trail elk mystery solved by GPS tracking

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During the fall hunting season, there always are elk in and around the Lost Trail Wildlife Refuge west of Kalispell, but where those animals spend the rest of the year has long been a head-scratcher for hunters and wildlife biologists.

Not any more.

Around February 2012, Stacy Courville, a Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes wildlife biologist, got curious about the movements of large numbers of elk that winter in the Hog Heaven area between Elmo and Niarada.

Three cow elk were fitted with Argos GPS collars, enabling Courville to download locations for the elk about every two days. He expected them to move — but not as far north as they did.

All three left the Hog Heaven area around April. One summered just north of U.S. 2 near McGregor Lake, another moved into the Lost Trail area and the third migrated to the Fortine Creek area northwest of Whitefish Lake, or about 60 air miles from where her journey started.

All three are believed to have calved and all three ended up being in the general vicinity of Lost Trail when the 2012 hunting season arrived.

“We knew they weren’t summering on the reservation,” Courville said. “I didn’t know we were collecting elk from that far north.”

Although there were just three GPS collars, those elk weren’t traveling alone. Their movements reflect large numbers of elk.

“We’ve seen up to 700 elk winter in there,” Courville said of the Hog Heaven winter range that is rich in bunch grasses. Some years there are only a few hundred elk, and the numbers seem to be greater depending on the severity of winter, Courville added.

Two of the three collared elk are now dead, including one that was poached and left by a road with its collar on near Lost Trail last year. The sole survivor is the cow that tends to move the farthest north.

“Wildlife migrations are some of the greatest spectacles in nature,” said Jim Williams, Region One wildlife manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “They are very variable. Some are very short, they can be extremely long, some are seasonal, some are one-way distances and some are two-way distances and others are just changes in elevations.”

The tribal elk monitoring work was very revealing and helpful because it involved elk that use Lost Trail, Williams said.

“The Lost Trail elk herd is one of the most popular hunts in Northwest Montana,” he said. “Everyone had lots of theories about where they went ... We always assumed they were in the timber somewhere, but lo and behold, they are wintering on the Flathead Nation.”

State biologists have looked for the elk during spring aerial surveys that always turned up a few elk but not in the numbers that show up around the refuge during hunting season. Now, surveys can be timed in April and concentrated on the Hubbart Reservoir area south of U.S. 2.

“It really impacted the way we do wildlife surveys in the Lost Trail area,” Williams said. “We know they are either on the reservation or starting to move north into that Hubbart country.”

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by email at jmann@dailyinterlake.com.

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