With bison perhaps returning, Glacier to study east side elk herd

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Elk are all ears on the flats at St. Mary.

Glacier National Park will embark on a comprehensive study of its east side elk herd in the coming years.

Elk are a common sight in Glacier’s east side valleys, particularly in the spring and fall, when they travel to meadows to feed early and late in the day.

The park takes pains to protect them — winter range in the St. Mary drainage is closed from mid-December to mid-May each year.

But the Park doesn’t know how many elk actually live on the east side, noted supervisory biologist Mark Biel and it doesn’t know the migration patterns of the herds.

Glacier’s herds are hunted — almost all of them leave the Park at some point, where they are fair game. Unlike Yellowstone’s elk herds, most Glacier Park elk bolt at the sight of people. The study will not just look at elk migration and herd size, it will also look at the health of the herd. The Park has no evidence of chronic wasting disease in its ungulate herds, but Biel noted that the disease has been found in regions surrounding the Park.

The study isn’t just about elk, however, Biel noted. It will also look at vegetation, songbirds, amphibians and pollinators. The Park is anticipating that at some point, a bison herd the Blackfeet are raising will eventually become a free-ranging herd and will some point the herd will wander into the Park. When they do, the Park will allow them to stay, Biel noted, as they’re a native species.

Bison once roamed Glacier freely, but haven’t been in the Park for about 150 years. They were all but wiped out by commercial hunters in the late 1800s. The study will form a baseline of ecological conditions prior to their return.

“(Park) grasslands evolved with bison,” Biel noted.

Bison are an apex herbivore, he explained and they’ll have an impact on the Park. Once small example is their wallows can fill with water, forming small season ponds amphibians can breed in.

Bison bones have been found in ice formations in Glacier, studies have found, and their bones have been found in the riverbanks of streams.

Their roaming wasn’t just at low elevations, either. Bones have even been found at high mountain passes.

“If bison come back, are we going to see a more diverse plant community?” Biel said.

The study will start in earnest next year, with the hopes to radio collar some elk by the fall of next year.

The study is being done in cooperation with the Blackfeet Tribe, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Wildlife Conservation Society. It’s supported in part through a grant from the Glacier National Park Conservancy.

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