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Montana wildlife biologist retires after 31 years

Published on September 20, 2012 3:01AM

Last changed on September 20, 2012 10:51AM


Ravalli Republic via Associated Press

HAMILTON, Mont. (AP) -- It was one of those 10 below zero mornings in the Madison Valley that Craig Jourdonnais will never forget.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist had spent the morning leaning out of a helicopter door to fire tranquilizer darts into the behinds of elk caught in the wide open spaces of their winter range.

It was getting late and the chopper was low on fuel when Jourdonnais fired his last two darts.

Both hit their marks.

When the first bull flared toward the nearby wilderness boundary, the helicopter pilot raced to put his machine in between the charging animal and the fence line.

"I could see it racing right at us," Jourdonnais remembers. "I thought, 'Holy cow. It's going to run into us.'"

Ten feet from the chopper's door, the elk crumpled to the ground. Jourdonnais jumped out and slipped a collar around its neck, took blood samples, and then hurried off to do the same on the other animal he'd darted.

This one hadn't gone down.

With the dart hanging from its side, the big bull elk was still on its feet. Jourdonnais suspected some of the drug had frozen inside the dart.

The pilot said he had to go. His fuel was almost gone.

A little while later, Jourdonnais was headed toward the highway with two other biologists when they spotted the bull elk right by the Wall Creek Game Range sign.

It was obviously still feeling the effects of the drug.

No one had another tranquilizer dart handy, but they did have a rope.

Without much thought, Jourdonnais found himself trying to coax the bull to step in the loop on the ground. When it did, the biologist gave a mighty tug.

Seconds later, the rope went taut and before anyone could jump out of the way, it knocked all three men right off their feet.

"Ken Hamlin jumped right up," Jourdonnais said. "I never saw an old man run that fast. He grabbed hold of the elk and gave it a reversal shot."

Moments later, with the rope successfully retrieved, the men watched the elk amble off.

"We thought maybe we'd call it a day," Jourdonnais said.

After 31 years with the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department, the Bitterroot-based biologist has decided to call it a career.

He'll leave with lots of good stories and the knowledge that he's earned the respect of many people who care about this state's wildlife populations.

Not bad for a guy who used to ride his bike as a kid to FWP headquarters in Great Falls to pick the brains of the biologists who once worked there.

"It's really all I ever wanted to be," Jourdonnais said.

Jourdonnais' career began on the Sun River Wildlife Management Area, where he did a little bit of everything before writing his graduate thesis on managing winter range with fire and cattle.

From there, he worked as a game warden for a time.

Many Montanans will remember him as the man behind the video camera who produced more than 500 outdoor reports that appeared on local television news stations for years.

"It was the most fantastic job," Jourdonnais said. "It took me from one corner of the state to the other covering everything newsworthy for Fish, Wildlife and Parks."

After 15 years of being on the road, Jourdonnais took a job as a biologist based in Bozeman in about 2003. For the next few years, he found himself hip deep in a growing controversy over wolves' impacts on elk in the Gallatin Range and burgeoning elk herds in the Madison that found refuge during hunting seasons on huge private ranches owned by the rich and famous.

When his wife decided she wanted to go to law school and a biologist's job opened in the Bitterroot, Jourdonnais moved north into a position he initially thought was going to be a relaxing one.

"I thought that I would come to this quiet Montana valley and lick my wounds," Jourdonnais said. "It turned out to be quite a challenge."

By the time Jourdonnais arrived, elk numbers were in a downward spiral in the southern reaches of the valley and wolf populations were doing well.

"The great thing about the Bitterroot is people here take ownership of wildlife," he said. "I've never been in a place where there is a more educated group of people who truly care about their wildlife than in the Bitterroot."

When it came time for Jourdonnais to look for support of a large-scale, three-year study of the dynamics between elk and predators, he turned first to the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association.

That organization stepped forward to offer funding and volunteer help that got the project up and going.

Now in its second year, Jourdonnais said the information gathered through the study has already been used to make adjustments in the management of wildlife in the southern Bitterroot.

"We're just now at the point that the study is starting to bear fruit," he said. "It would have never happened without the support of local folks. All of it was locally driven. It started as a few people talking and it grew into a symphony."

The research is opening people's eyes.

"The information has gradually evolved to show that wolves are definitely an issue impacting elk herds, but they're not the only thing," he said.

Jourdonnais brought a rare ability to build common ground among different groups to create a better place for wildlife, said FWP wildlife manager Mike Thompson.

"He's going to be missed," he said. "I've already bumped into it in the terms of the relationships that he's built in the community. He has a way of communicating and helping people understand issues."

The way he approached problems built credibility, Thompson said. In turn, that helped to pave the way for the large-scale study now occurring in the Bitterroot.

"I don't think it would have happened without him," Thompson said.

Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association president Tony Jones said Jourdonnais' first concern was always the resource, but hunter opportunity was a close second.

"He cared about the animals on the hill," Jones said.

That really became evident when bighorn sheep in the East Fork began to die from pneumonia. Rather than take the normal approach of letting the disease run its course, Jourdonnais decided on a tactic never before used when he began culling out sick animals.

"It was a risky move to save those sheep," Jones said. "If he hadn't decided to give it a try, the Bitterroot would look like Rock Creek now where there is only a handful of sheep left.

"We still have a huntable population in the East Fork because of him," Jones said.

Jourdonnais finished up at the department on the last day of August. He now works for the Ecosystem Research Group in Missoula.


Information from: Ravalli Republic, http://www.ravallirepublic.com

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.



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