Montana Viewpoint©
An official report on Montana’s big game counting methods

November 25, 2002

Sure the state budget’s in the tank, the economy stinks, and we might be going to war; but, you know what? It’s hunting season so this column’s not going to be about serious stuff, it’s going to be about SERIOUS stuff—the accuracy of big game counts.

I’m a member of the Legislative Audit Committee. That’s a committee that directs and reviews audits of all the state agencies and then some. By law, all state agencies get audited every two years. The audits can be dry as dust, but there are also “performance” audits, which I think are a lot of fun to read. (You knew people who went into politics were different; you just didn’t know they had a whole ’nother idea of fun.)

A performance audit reviews the way a government agency does business and complies with laws that govern its actions. Auditors also make recommendations for improvement for the agencies’ consideration. Last year, the Audit Committee requested the Legislative Auditor’s Office to conduct a performance audit of how well Fish and Game’s Wildlife Division does on their big game counts.

The reason the Audit Committee asked for the game count performance audit was because some members of the committee didn’t think a game biologist could count an elk in his bathtub and wanted to get the goods on the issue. Other members figured the biologist could probably count that elk—unless it was lathered up—but wanted to see how accurately they did it. Game counts are the basis for setting hunting seasons and quotas. They’re a critical component of managing game animals in Montana and other states.

Well, the results are out, and the auditors give high marks to the game count folks, and offer some suggestions for doing a little better job of estimating game animal populations. The auditors worry, though, that the hunting public might find the improvements controversial. There’s a surprise.

First, the auditors compared Montana’s methods of counting game with those of surrounding states to see how we measure up. “Montana’s FWP department employs game management methods that compare to accepted standards,” the report confides. Auditors don’t go overboard on praise or blame in general, but what that means is, we’re doing it pretty much like everyone else, and just as well. So if you don’t like the way we do the count here, you could go to Wyoming or Idaho and not like it there either.

We know that there are more critters out there than we see, and determining total populations as well as sex and age ratios from limited data has become pretty much of an art form. The auditors think we can do a better job by using scientific methods. In fact, they figure game biologists generally underestimate the count. Greater accuracy is one goal, and better continuity is another. When game biologists retire, an awful lot of knowledge of their district retires with them. It’s important that the biologist that succeeds the retiree uses the same standard as his predecessor.

The audit advises: “Rather than conducting less accurate surveys in many management areas, more accurate estimates through repetitive surveys in fewer units yield better information using the same resources.” The audit also emphasizes the importance of doing things the same way time after time: “Standardized protocol is important because it removes subjective type judgments and leads to more rigorous surveying.” This is done so that researchers will be able to do the study the same way—replicate is the term—in the same or any in other area. Fish and Game is already using similar techniques in its Adaptive Harvest Management Plan for mule deer, and is ahead of other states in that regard.

Because fewer areas will be counted, the auditors worry there might be negative public reaction since counts may no longer be conducted in certain areas. It goes against the grain that you get more accuracy by tallying fewer areas. As I wondered about that myself, a slow grey dawn began to rise in my noggin. This is the same method foresters use to inventory timber stands. Plots are randomly selected from a starting point, the plots are cruised and averaged together, and that average, by golly, is applied to the entire timber management unit.

Now if the elk stand still like trees, we’ll be in business.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620