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Elk study underway on Blackfeet lands, Glacier National Park

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | May 11, 2022 7:45 AM

Folks visiting the east side of Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet tribal lands may see elk wearing collars this year.

In February, about 55 elk were collared in the Goose and Duck Lake areas and an additional 25 were collared near Dog Gun Lake near the Badger-Two Medicine area.

All of them were cow elk. The study is being done by the Tribe, Glacier National Park, the U.S. Geological Survey and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, noted Gerald “Buzz” Cobell, the tribe’s director of fish and wildlife.

FWP used its expertise to net the elk via helicopter.

The study will last about four years, Cobell said.

The idea behind the study is not just to get a better picture of the herds’ dynamics and movements, but is also one piece of a larger effort to eventually bring American bison back to Glacier National Park and the Chief Mountain area. It’s called the Iinnii Initiative. (Iinni is Blackfeet for bison.)

Glacier initially proposed the study a couple of years ago, with funding support from the Glacier National Park Conservancy. But it made more sense to pool resources, Mark Biel, Natural Resources Program Manager for Glacier said in a recent interview.

The elk herds, like the bison herds before them, migrate in and out of the park.

The Park Service bought many of the collars used in the study. The idea is to not only learn about the elk, but what might come when bison return, as elk have filled the niche of bison for more than 135 years now.

It’s believed the last bison in the park were extirpated from Glacier in the late 1880s by industrial hunting. The idea was to kill the Blackfeet’s main food source, which would, in turn, make it easier to control the people, noted park archeologist Brent Rowley in a recent talk sponsored by the Conservancy.

Prior to that, bison had inhabited the park for more than 12,000 years and based on carbon dating evidence, some bison probably lived in Glacier year round.

Their bones have been found in the alpine terrain, revealed after ice fields have melted in recent years. Their skulls and bones have also been eroding out of river banks on the east side of the park.

By using carbon isotope analysis, researchers can tell from the bone what plants they have been eating. Rowley said they have found where the Blackfeet not only hunted bison, they cooked them in boiling pits of water

The effort to return bison will likely take years, however. In addition to elk studies, the park is looking at plants and songbirds conditions on the ground and how they might change when bison return, Biel noted.

Significant steps to reintroduction have been taken.

Back in 2016, the Blackfeet purchased about 90 wild bison calves from the Elk Island herd in Canada.

Those bison were descendants of the last remaining genetically pure bison left on the Blackfeet lands.

Since then, the herd has grown and it can often be seen grazing along Highway 2 just outside of the park in the summertime.

Additional conservation steps have also been take, Cobell noted. In fall of 2021, the Blackfeet Nation Tribal Business Council enacted a resolution that, in effect, suspended cattle grazing allotments on 25,000 acres of lands in the Chief Mountain area until 2029.

The resolution also directs the Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife Department to develop a long-term management plan with Blackfeet community members for the Chief Mountain Unit and work closely with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Park, and other partners to conduct range and vegetation research, monitoring, and other important Tribal habitat conservation efforts.

The unit will continue to be a place for Blackfeet cultural uses including hunting, ceremony, gathering, and other practices important to Blackfeet community members.

Over the next couple years, Blackfeet Nation is also planning to explore the suitability of the area for the reintroduction of Iinnii (bison), nature based economic development, and natural resource employment opportunities, Cobell noted.

A group of nonprofit partners including the Wildlife Conservation Society, Montana Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, Vital Ground Foundation, and Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative contributed funding to offset the loss of grazing income to the allottee land owners in the Ninnaastakoo Unit over the next eight years.

Ninnaastakoo is the Blackfeet word for Chief Mountain.

The area isn’t just a potential home for reintroduced bison herds, it also is important habitat for bull trout and one of the few areas east of the divide where pure native westslope cutthroat trout still live in streams.

In short, the idea is to make the ecosystem whole again.

“I’m happy to be part of it,” Cobell said. “I think I will be better for Montana and the people who visit the area.”