After a confusing discussion, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a third elk shoulder season that will begin in August and extend through February 2019.
At issue during the Thursday meeting in Helena was how the commission should keep its promise to the public to allow the extended elk hunting for only three seasons. That time frame was believed to be long enough to assess whether the extended hunting season was driving down elk numbers where they are over Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ desired population objectives. The objectives are based on social concerns, not what the habitat can support, and because Republican members of the Montana Legislature have pressured FWP to increase the elk harvest.
“I really appreciate this discussion,” said Joe Perry, a Conrad-area farmer and hunting advocate. “I don’t want anybody to underestimate the importance of this issue. Promises need to be kept. Remember, these are only supposed to be temporary seasons. The objective is to get the numbers down and then do away with these things.”
Montana has elk shoulder seasons in 43 hunting districts. The early seasons start on Aug. 15 and run to Sept. 1. The shoulder seasons are not in effect during the regular archery and rifle seasons. The late season starts after the end of the regular rifle season. In Regions 2, 3, 4 and 5 those late seasons will now all run until Feb. 15.
The problem some commissioners voiced was allowing a fourth shoulder season based on only one year’s worth of data. Because hunting seasons were being set at the February meeting for the next two years, and the shoulder seasons are just ending in many hunting districts on Feb. 15, harvest data won’t be available to the commissioners and the department for this second shoulder season until August.
Approving a fourth season on only one year’s worth of data was worrisome to some commissioners, including Shane Colton of Billings.
“I’m not comfortable approving into a fourth year on one year of data,” he said.
As a compromise, the commission will consider extending the elk shoulder season into a fourth year at its December meeting, based on the two years of data that will be available by then along with any anecdotal information on how the third season is going.
Hunters have been divided over the extended seasons. Some value the extra chance to fill their freezer with wild meat. Others are concerned that pressuring elk for half the year will harm the popular big game animals, especially in the winter when they are most vulnerable.
Helena hunter Brian McCullough said, “As a meat hunter, I appreciate the opportunity to be out there.” He encouraged the department and commission to evaluate the extended seasons on other factors than just elk population declines, such as: an increase in hunter access to private land; the economic benefit to small communities; and the opportunity for hunters unsuccessful during the regular season to harvest game.
Belgrade hunter Ward Olson sees the issue of shoulder seasons differently. He warned that the seasons could “jeopardize future herds.” He said he now sees fewer elk near his home than he used to and expressed concern that some people were illegally shooting too many elk.
“It’s a valued resource,” he said. “It should be treated as such.”
Commissioner Richard Stuker, from Chinook, said he’d like to have FWP explore having hunters required to report their hunting success electronically.
“I don’t think we get really good data to make decisions on,” he said.
He also advocated giving hunters extra tags in areas where elk populations are way above objective to more quickly reverse the growth of those elk herds. Otherwise, he said he didn’t think the department could ever reduce elk populations.
One problem for the department, though, is an element entirely out of its control — access to elk on private land. One region that illustrates that is Hunting Districts 411, 511 and 530 that encompass the Big Snowy Mountains south of Lewistown. Combined, the districts have an elk population of close to 6,000 head — the largest herd in the state. The FWP objective is only 900 elk for that elk management unit.
The majority of those elk — about 5,300 head — live on the east side of Red Hill Road, which cuts through the districts. A large portion of the land in that area is owned by Texas billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks. They allow very limited public elk hunting. On the west side of Red Hill Road, where landowners allow more public hunting, the elk herd is closer to the objective.
“There’s a lot of elk on one particular place,” Colton said without naming the Wilkses. “We’re not going to get a whole lot of access there, although we’re working on it.”
Small landowners who have the Wilkses as neighbors are stuck dealing with elk overflow, which may occur only outside of the hunting season. As soon as shots are fired, the elk rush back to the safety of the Wilks ranch.
Colton’s point is that setting elk objectives for all of HD 411 doesn’t make sense because hunter access is so different between the east and west sides of the district.
“I think it’s strange to have the same management protocols for two distinct situations,” he said.
Region 4 also allows elk hunting during the shoulder season on all but national forest land in HD 411, whereas Region 5 allows elk shoulder season hunts only on private lands.
In the end, the commission agreed to split shoulder season regulations for HD 411 at Red Hill Road. West of the road the shoulder season will close on Jan. 1 and the early season will be on private land only. The east portion of 411 will have a shoulder season through Feb. 15 that is valid on all but national forest lands.