Six or seven years ago Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks completed a wildlife management project that encompassed four to five square miles of one of my favorite hunting places, where they thinned the trees to provide additional prime habitat for bighorn sheep. It didn’t work: I’ve not seen any sheep in the area they cleared even though they are frequently on the next ridge over but I’m still pleased beyond words because what they actually did was create a mule deer heaven! This interesting species chooses to live on open, south-facing slopes where grass is abundant and even the weak sun of winter melts most of the snow, leaving them a food source and relative warmth all year long.
Yesterday the view from the valley showed spring snowstorms covering all of the mountain tops and high ridges and that brought an urge to go up there and be in one. I chose mule deer heaven, with the idea that I would see some mule deer and enjoy spending some time in one of the last snowstorms of the year.
After a long and grueling drive of four miles I parked the truck just up off the canyon floor and began a two thousand foot climb up to a large area consisting mostly of two long open ridges which run parallel to each other about a mile apart at their lower ends. There is an old Forest Service access road leading up there and it makes the hike so much easier although no less steep. From a half mile up the road, the truck starts to look small below
and the road looks long up ahead.
By the time I reached this point
I was laughing at myself and happy that I hadn’t taken anyone to show them some mule deer because all I had seen were white-tails, but when I looked across the draw there was a bighorn ewe grazing near the top of the far ridge, about 800 yards away.
I often change my plan when on a hike, and did so again this time, choosing to investigate the ridge she was on instead of continuing on up my ridge. Going through that deep draw wasn’t a good option (I have been there before), so I hiked to the head of it and took this abandoned logging road (in nearly perfect elk habitat, by the way)
which would take me half of the way to where the sheep was grazing. Then it started to get interesting. Above me in broken timber on the hill to my right there were six elk, including a large bull, followed by three mule deer. They were all within shooting range, had I been hunting, but not within camera range. I was able to work myself to within about 60 yards of the bull when he yelled at me. That’s an extremely rare but thrilling experience. Imagine the bark of a seal, without the gravelly sound, quite a bit higher pitched and about ten times louder. He just raised his head into the air, tipped his nose up and yelled.
For those who are not familiar with elk, they are large animals: a big bull will weigh over a thousand pounds. Here’s a shot of one of his tracks beside my size 9 boot,
(as a comparison, here’s a shot of a moose track:)
and here’s one of the many well-used elk trails in the area.
Past the end of the road and a half mile into this kind of country
above me were these two ewes.
After a pretty darn sloppy stalk, I got closer
and when I was within about 20 yards, this one started to slowly walk away
but incredibly, this one looked straight at me, lay down and looked away toward the next canyon! These were not Park sheep nor were they from the bands that spend time near the highway and get somewhat used to people. They were as wild as they can be.
(My wife kindly pointed out that the ewe had probably seen me hunt before and knew she had nothing to worry about.)
During a hike of about three miles in two hours I had the good fortune to see 16 white-tail deer, 10 mule deer, 9 elk and 3 bighorn sheep. Not a bad trip for one that started simply as a hike to be involved the last snowstorm of the season.