The commissioners reviewed a lengthy list of hunting districts where elk seek sanctuary on private land that might be opened to antlerless harvest as early as August to as late as February. They also stressed any decision on the proposal must go through lots of public comment this January.
“We’re looking at 44 hunting districts across the state,” Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game management bureau chief John Vore said Thursday. “All of them are over population objective.”
While hunters in some parts of the state complain wolves and bears have eaten once-bountiful elk herds, others object to the difficulty reaching elk that gather by the hundreds or even thousands on hay pastures and ranch river bottoms. This fall, FWP authorized five hunting district shoulder seasons in Region 4 between Cascade and White Sulphur Springs. The proposal for next year would include districts all over the state except the southeast’s Region 7.
Montana’s general big-game rifle season for elk and deer lasts five weeks in October and November. The shoulder seasons would only be valid on private property and some public land that’s interwoven with agricultural ground. Most U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state FWP game reserves and other public land would not be included. Hunters could only take antlerless elk. The shoulder seasons would not apply to deer or other big-game species.
Attendees at Thursday’s meeting raised lots of questions and challenges to the proposal. Several ranch owners said they hesitated to support a program that could have them dealing with hunters wanting access and advice six months of the year. Others wondered how the program would be enforced, when FWP game wardens are already stretched thin during the five-week season.
Some hunters at the meeting asked why the statewide rollout was under consideration when the five-district pilot project was barely in its beginnings. They also asked how the seasons could be timed to disperse elk to public land, where hunters could pursue more traditional open-country fair chase.
There are also potential problems with extending a hunting season into times when other activities take place. For example, a Washington hunter recently complained to state wildlife authorities about a biologist’s helicopter survey flight he claimed drove off elk he was chasing during a December muzzle-loader season. The biologist told the Spokesman-Review newspaper that was also the best time to survey mule deer, and spooking the elk herd was unintentional.
FWP Region 2 wildlife manager Mike Thompson said he expected the shoulder season ideas to get a vigorous inspection during this January’s agency open house gatherings as hunters examine the many proposed changes in game quotas, license offerings and other policy drafts on the table. Dates for those meetings have not been scheduled.