One of Montana’s favorite Wild West traditions — racing onto a Wildlife Management Area on May 15 to collect elk antlers shed during the winter when those areas are off limits to the public — may be changed under a proposal put forth by the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department.
Following a request by FWP Commissioner Ron Moody, the agency is proposing that on the day when the closed Wildlife Management Areas are opened to the public, only foot traffic would be allowed and only two antlers could be collected per person on that day.
Currently, horn hunting at the Sun River Wildlife Management Area, or WMA, often is compared to the great Oklahoma land rush, with more than 200 people in vehicles, on horseback, on bikes and on foot, gathered at the main gate or along fences around the WMA. At high noon, the gate is swung open and hundreds of people pour forth, spreading out over the landscape to hunt for horns.
“This has become one of the institutionalized traditions of the whole outdoor experience, without anybody really paying attention to it,” Moody said. “It’s just grown and grown over many years, and the Sun River game range was the trigger point of us doing something about it.”
Typically, the rush of people only takes place the first day, with interest tapering off afterward.
Montana has about 60 WMAs, but not all of them are closed to the public in the winter and not all of them are as wild on opening day as Sun River. But FWP is making the recommendation statewide in an effort to be consistent.
“Sun River arguably represents one end of the spectrum,” said Quentin Kujala, FWP’s wildlife management bureau chief. “Most of the other WMAs have less activity on opening day, and we’re not sure why.”
Moody said he heard numerous complaints about Sun River’s opening day last year when he attended a meeting of the Sun River Working Group.
“I got an earful, and brought those concerns back to the commission,” Moody said. “People said that on opening day a large mob of people were turned loose at the opening moment of the season and came in from every direction while there were still a lot of elk on the game range.
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“People ended up surrounding those elk and they were running back and forth in a panic to get away from the horn hunters. They showed me a picture of an exhausted cow elk. Plus, people were getting bumped by horseback riders and OHV (off-highway vehicles) were going off-road.”
In addition, people have been known to sneak onto the game ranges after they’re closed, usually in November or December, and stash antlers to pick up once the ranges are legally opened.
“They’d come in with a string of pack horses and a couple hours after opening, they’re seen riding out with their pack horses loaded. That’s not to say they did cache the horns, but when other people who obey the rules come out with one or two antlers, that’s not fair,” Moody added.
Eliminating the use of horses or motorized vehicles also on the WMA opening day, while limiting the number of horns per person, could level the playing field. Moody said he also wants the commission to possibly consider instituting the foot traffic only and two-antler limit for a week after the opening day.
Yet the rush of humanity also serves a purpose by pushing any elk remaining on the WMA into higher ground to calve, and it lessens their impact on foraging, noted Moody and Kujala.
Kujala added that FWP may not be able to legally limit the number of horns a person can remove, since shed antlers technically aren’t considered wildlife. That means state and federal agencies have no jurisdiction over their harvest or sale. However, horns can’t be removed from national parks.
“There is certainly a question there,” Kujala said. “But this isn’t an elimination or an action to adjust antler hunting for the sake of antler hunting. It’s to protect the elk and the public, and to be fair.”
WMAs that include big game winter range are generally closed to public entry from Dec. 1 to May 15, although some close earlier. The winter closures are intended to eliminate human disturbance when wildlife most need to conserve energy.
The commission is slated to take up the topic at its Jan. 14 meeting in Helena, which begins at 8:30 a.m. at FWP Headquarters at 1420 East 6th Ave. in Helena. The proposed change is toward the end of the agenda.
A formal public comment period is expected to take place after the meeting if the idea is given tentative approval by the commission, and it would run through Feb. 19. A final proposal will be presented to the commission at its March 11 meeting.
Eve Byron: 447-4076 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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