The mercury climbed to near 60 on Monday. Crawling through grass and mud watching elk in the foothills south of Augusta brought a lobster-like color to my face and neck and a natural camo-color to my unnaturally camouflaged clothing. But, it was worth it.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks had finished their survey of elk in area 422. Seems there are more elk there than have been there in recent history—about 1800. Data shows about 1,015 elk were counted in 422 in 2007. While that is fewer than found on the Sun River Game Range, and the area is larger, it is easier to get close and actually watch them.
Rules for the Game Range keep people on the road, and the road only goes into the edge of the Game Range.
Area 422 is more difficult in one respect. Most of the land were elk are found in winter is private.
I got permission to go on a ranch on the Skunk Creek drainage. This area has been in the news recently-not by name-because over the last couple years several heifers have been killed by wolves there.
Area 422 is rather large. The south boundary is US Highway 200 and Rogers Pass. Western boundary is the Continental Divide. North boundary is the headwaters of the South Fork of the Sun River. The eastern boundary is Montana route 434, on the edge of the plains.
Since I hadn’t been to Skunk Creek for a while, I had no idea where to go, but immediately found several hundred elk moving from the foothills into the timber of the mountains. They were on land owned by a different rancher. As I watched them file away, I noticed about 35 bedded on a rocky outcrop a mile from the mountains proper. They were also on someone else’s land, but only 50 yards away from the border fence.
I made a stalk that ended in belly-crawling through several hundred yards of grass and mud. The sun in March is starting to have some power. While ground several inches down was still frozen, the top two inches were a muddy swamp-like ooze—hence the natural camo-color.
I watched the 35 elk for a couple hours. Something spooked them. As elk poured out of adjoining coulees, the 35 quickly became over 140. They jumped the fence, left the neighbor’s no-man’s-land and trotted to a section of land I watched until sun down. The beautiful day was also lucky. Most of the heard bedded back down on a snow bank less than 100 yards from the rocky point where I laid.
I hadn’t planned to stay ‘til the sun set, but I had left my pack in plain sight of the elk. I had hoped that as the sun went down, they would graze off and allow me to get the pack without disturbing them.
A hundred-and-forty elk are wonderful to watch, but laying in the sun for eight hours (without sun screen—who needs sunscreen in March?) was difficult. Monotony was broken several times as a few spikes pushed and spared playfully. Just before I decided to leave—and spook the herd, I glasses around one more time. What a sight. The small herd to my front was dwarfed by a herd of over 300 that were pilled up along a fence a half-mile away, waiting for the first to jump in and start the night’s grazing. Quite a sight.
Tuesday I changed areas. I went up into the rocks and trees and looked for some bachelor groups. Found a few. Most still have their horns. Another month and that will change. Two or three more months and the herd will grow as calves hit the ground.
I didn’t take any still pictures, and my FireWire cable isn’t compatible with my computer. As soon as I rectify that situation, I will determine if the videos are YouTube friendly. They look good on a large screen TV, but who knows what they look like on a tiny screen.
View looking north near the Dearborn River.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday’s warm weather changed on Thursday. Mercury plunged to below zero Thursday night. A winter storm brought a storm advisory and about five inches of snow.
Another change. Friday we woke to subzero temps and a glowing heat tab rising from the eastern plains.
The varieties of weather, mountains, plains and wildlife along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front create a mélange that can’t be beat.