Montana Outdoors

April 5, 2007

Mule deer heaven

Filed under: Bighorn sheep, Elk, Hunting, Montana, Moose, Mule deer, Nature, Outdoors, Photos, Pictures, White-tail deer — montucky @ 11:01 pm

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

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and the road looks long up ahead.

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By the time I reached this point

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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)

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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,

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(as a comparison, here’s a shot of a moose track:)

Moose track

and here’s one of the many well-used elk trails in the area.

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Past the end of the road and a half mile into this kind of country

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above me were these two ewes.

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After a pretty darn sloppy stalk, I got closer

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and when I was within about 20 yards, this one started to slowly walk away

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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.

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(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.

November 25, 2006

Elk country

Filed under: Animals, Elk, Montana, Nature, Outdoors, Photos, Pictures — montucky @ 1:29 pm

Today was our last elk hunt of the season and we began without high expectations for success, but the exhilaration of just being outdoors, in the high country, was enough to cause us to make the trip.

After two hours, thirty-five miles of driving through the snow into the back country of the Cabinet Mountains of western Montana, we parked our one-horse-open-sleigh at the base of McCully Ridge, slightly southeast of Fishtrap Lake. (Well, I’ve gotten soft: it’s a little more than one horse, and it isn’t open – thank Goodness!)

Modern sleigh

The excuse for this trip, sometimes called “the quarry”, was elk. For those not familiar with them, they’re a large member of the deer family and an adult bull will weight 800 to 1000 pounds, not exactly what one might think of as small game. For me, one of their most endearing qualities is the country in which they choose to live.

At this time of year and continuing on into March, the home of these elk is along the medium ridges and the more open south-facing slopes of those ridges where they can find enough food to sustain them until the grasses of spring again turn the mountainsides green.

Their chosen winter range is harsh but beautiful, and the elk have evolved a way to keep them warm, even in deep snow and sub-zero temperatures. To compensate for temperatures that range from 100ºF in the summer to -40ºF in the winter, twice each year elk shed every hair and re-grow their coats. By late July they shed their thin sleek copper-colored short summer hair and replace it with a two-layer winter parka which is five times warmer. It consists of a dense wooly undercoat and a longer layer of thick guard hairs that overlay the undercoat. The insides of the guard hairs are constructed like a honeycomb and provide so much insulation that an elk can accumulate a heavy layer of snow on its back without having its body temperature melt the snow. I don’t feel sorry for them sleeping in the deep snow of winter.

After an hour’s hike up the slope from where I left the “sleigh” the snow was knee-deep on a little shelf along the ridge and as I arrived there the heavy snowfall stopped and the sun appeared for just a few minutes before the clouds closed in again, giving this view of the elk’s winter home. It’s what I will remember during the long winter ahead.

Elk country

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