by Dan Thompson, Ravalli County Off Road User Assn.

While Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) has the responsibility of managing wildlife populations on Federal land, the Forest Service is tasked to manage the habitat for wildlife. Elk are considered to be an indicator species for most other ungulates, so the focus of state and Federal biologists is on counting, analyzing and managing elk populations.

The primary parameter that is used by the Forest Service to measure the quality of elk habitat is the Elk Habitat Effectiveness (EHE) parameter. Target values for EHE are specified in the Bitterroot National Forest 1987 Forest Plan for every third order drainage, and the Bitterroot National Forest is tasked by the Plan to try to achieve these target EHE values during any project they propose to do.

Sounds great, right? After all, we are all in favor of maintaining healthy ungulate populations on public land and providing those critters with a healthy environment. It’s like motherhood and apple pie – no one can object to managing our public land to maintain healthy elk populations.

The problem is that EHE doesn’t have anything to do with how effectively the Forest provides suitable habitat for elk or any other species. It’s a nonsense parameter that has absolutely no correlation to elk health or abundance, yet the Agency persists in using EHE to make land management decisions.

There is only one variable that goes into the EHE calculation: Open road densities. Any Forest road that is open for any period of time during the year is included in the EHE calculation for an area. EHE does not account for the abundance or quality of food for elk, the amount of cover for elk (elk like a particular mixture of open space and forested areas), or the abundance of natural and human predators. Only road densities.

A demonstration of EHE as a useless parameter is provided in the Bitterroot Valley. Few drainages in the Sapphire Mountains (generally roaded) meet EHE objectives, yet elk populations generally meet or exceed FWP goals in the Sapphire Mountains. In contrast, the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness areas on the west side of the valley, which contain perfect EHE measures (no roads), have elk populations approaching historic all-time lows.

Clearly, if roads were a dominant influence on elk, this situation should be reversed and the Bitterroot Mountains would be loaded with elk. Montana FWP advocates for managing open road densities during hunting season, and there may be some logic to that tactic, since it limits the number of human predators of elk, deer, sheep and other game species. Personally, I think this is a poor way to manage game harvests since it concentrates hunters into small areas and penalizes the majority of hunters who choose to access their favorite hunting areas by some sort of motorized vehicle. But that’s another story.

Environmentalists love EHE, because it’s a feel-good parameter that disguises their real agenda of closing as many roads and motorized trails as possible. Providing good habitat for critters sounds good: Closing roads and trails meets widespread public resistance. So the invention of a parameter that measures road densities and then pretends to have something to do with elk suits their purposes.

One thing is for certain: Making land management decisions based upon a bad measurement results in bad decisions. Both the Forest Service and Montana FWP should abandon EHE as a meaningful measure of the effectiveness of elk habitat.