Two members of the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission indicated at the board’s Thursday meeting in Missoula that they were uncomfortable with allowing late-season elk hunts this winter in districts where population objectives have already been met or exceeded.
“If we’re already below (objective) we need to take a serious look at removing those,” said Commissioner Richard Stuker of Chinook, Montana.
The extended seasons, called elk shoulder seasons, begin in selected hunting districts on Aug. 15 and last until Feb. 15, effectively allowing cow elk hunting for half the year. Elk populations have been reduced in some of those areas thanks to the longer seasons, which began three years ago, said John Vore, Game Management Bureau chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
The problem is that the hunting regulations have already been approved and printed. Changing them now will require special meetings to alert the public to the changes.
The discussion came up in what was supposed to be an informational meeting leading up to an October commission discussion about how to move forward with shoulder hunts in the next two hunting seasons.
According to charts provided by Fish, Wildlife & Parks, 21,635 is the elk population objective for the 43 hunting districts discussed with the commission. In 2018 the elk population combined for those districts was 49,203. That was down from 53,545 elk in 2017.
The harvest that Fish, Wildlife & Parks wanted to see for cow elk in the selected districts was 6,656 in 2018 with 5,388 taken. For all elk the state agency wanted to see a harvest of 11,084 killed while hunters took 9,429.
The problem with lines on a map defining elk hunting districts is that the elk often cross those boundaries. That means the population can drop in one district and rise in an adjoining one as elk travel across the landscape in search of food or safety.
“I do want to approach this with caution,” Vore said. “Elk counting is an inexact exercise.”
Or elk may hide so well in the forest that biologists can’t even count them. That’s why the agency looks at trends over several years.
With the numbers so flexible, though, Stuker was troubled.
“It makes it tough for the public and me,” he said.
While a district may hit the population objective, he said the department seemed to be saying that the numbers shouldn’t be trusted. Yet those same numbers are used to justify the shoulder seasons.
Elk harvest has varied from season to season depending on the weather, with harsher winters providing a greater harvest. Fish, Wildlife & Parks has also found that seasons extending later into the winter have higher cow elk harvests.
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Those later seasons are ethically objectionable to some hunters and non-hunters since the long seasons can stress elk when their energy levels are low and cow elk are carrying 4-month-old unborn calves. On Aug. 15, when shoulder seasons begin, elk calves are still young and reliant on their mothers.
Vore stressed that Fish, Wildlife & Parks is required by law to reduce the elk numbers to population objectives that have been based on what landowners can abide.
“Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that managing elk to objective is the law,” he said.
Even if the population objectives were changed to allow more elk on the landscape, Vore said the problem would simply grow larger.
“The primary objective of the shoulder season is to reduce elk populations,” Vore said. “We need to harvest a lot of elk … to reach population objectives.”
Looking at individual hunting districts, the ones with greater success have been those where landowners provided the most access to hunters.
The combined districts of 411, 511 and 530 near the Snowy Mountains were the farthest from objective, which is 800 elk. The estimated population was 7,342. During the 2018 season a harvest of 2,158 was sought, but only 841 were taken. Vore called the area the “poster child” for lack of public access to those elk.
FWP has a tool to encourage greater cow elk harvest and possibly reduce landowners’ incentive for harboring bull elk that provide trophy hunting opportunities. The agency, with commission approval, could go to cow elk hunting only at specific times in certain districts. When that was proposed by the department last fall the commissioners rejected the idea after landowners and big game outfitters opposed the idea.
At the Thursday meeting, the few landowners present who spoke endorsed continuing with the shoulder seasons as a way to reduce elk populations.
“Shoulder seasons have been a real good tool for us,” said rancher Brent Mannix. “I think a lot of people would be open to tweaking it.”
Many hunters, however, denounced the long seasons. Chris Marchion, an Anaconda public land hunter, said the problem is that large ranches in his area harbor elk where public hunters aren’t allowed.
“All of the elk are down on the private land,” he said. “The success rate is horrible.”
Although the department and some hunters agreed that the elk management plan, written in 2005, needed to be updated to address the new concerns, Joe Perry, a Brady landowner and conservation advocate, disagreed. He said there are plenty of tools already available to landowners through the department to reduce elk populations if they provide public access.
“The shoulder seasons were meant to be a temporary solution,” Perry said.