When It’s Dry Go High

(c) Jack Ballard

On a recent hike in the Beartooth Mountains in October I found a herd of elk at 11,000 feet above sea level, up in the alpine zone. Haunts more commonly associated with bighorn sheep or mountain goats, the average hunter might ask, “what were they doing there.”

As it turns out, my corner of Montana has been in an extended drought with much higher than normal temperatures. Under such conditions, elk go high. And stay there. Not only is the cooler weather in the alpine zone more comfortable for creatures clad in a thick winter coat, the feed is better as well. Alpine grasses are very nutritious and in a drought year the high country generally produces more grass than the lowlands. Wapiti will remain at very high elevations in dry years until winter weather pushes them lower. You’ll find them in hanging valleys and on forested slopes at timberline, often feeding above the reaches of their traditional forested habitats.

Dry conditions make elk hunting tough anywhere. But if you point your boots up the mountain at least you’ll be hunting where they’re living.