Commission approves elk shoulder season guidelines, pilot project

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has stepped back a decade in its management of elk populations.

On Thursday, the FWP commission reluctantly voted to approve FWP’s plan to reinstate shoulder seasons for elk. Then FWP sidestepped some of the new guidelines when it proposed pilot shoulder seasons to begin in December.

As the commissioners settled in for a long afternoon, Wildlife Management Chief Quentin Kujala highlighted the changes FWP made after hunters and landowners sent in 1,100 comments regarding the initial shoulder-season guidelines FWP had revealed in June.

Almost all hunters opposed the hunting of bulls during shoulder seasons. Kujala said the hunting of bulls is no longer a requirement, but it would still be an option.

“There’s an abundantly deep pool of folks interested in antlerless opportunity,” Kujala said.

Commissioner Richard Stuker confirmed with Kujala that the commission would decide during the biennial season setting if any bulls were to be killed.

Bow hunters were concerned about safety issues of having an early rifle season, so the guidelines were changed to limit early seasons to mostly private land.

To avoid the appearance that shoulder seasons would be allowed to drag on, the guidelines require that all shoulder seasons have sunset dates, although a season could be terminated prior to the sunset date if it’s not working.

If a shoulder season were terminated, the elk populations would have to be over-objective for three seasons before shoulder seasons could be re-initiated in a district.

One guideline provides an exemption for districts that have a strong collaborative group of landowners and hunters such as the Devil’s Kitchen. Those districts could continue to have shoulder seasons without meeting the numerical criteria.

One of the requirement that FWP didn't change is hunters must be able to kill enough elk during the regular season to make up for half of that year’s elk offspring in any particular district. Since it isn’t likely that hunters could do that without being able to access some private land, this requirement encourages landowner participation, Kujala said.

“There’s no force here. The incentive is the package,” Kujala said. “If we can’t get there, we’re not going to get there.”

Kujala said regular and shoulder season harvest results would be posted to the FWP website so everyone could see if a shoulder season is working or not.

The commissioners commended Kujala for making the changes but still struggled with some of the guidelines.

Commissioner Matthew Tourtlotte questioned how the commission was to identify an effective collaborative group. Kujala didn't have a definitive answer.

“I have a hard time looking at (that guideline) and not seeing a loophole. It sounds good, but how is that going to turn into actual practice three years from now. I’m skeptical,” Tourtlotte said.

Vermillion proposed adding a footnote to clarify the intent of that guideline and encourage flexible solutions: “The intent is to expand the opportunity to address elk numbers and distribution problems that have not been addressed by with this or other season structures. It is not the intent to create an opportunity to continue shoulder seasons in districts where lack of reasonable public harvest opportunity during the general season is the primary cause of elk numbers exceeding population objectives.”

The 15 hunters who added public comment doubted that shoulder seasons would work, and many reiterated their request to eliminate bull harvest, to no avail.

Greg Munther of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers also questioned the ethics of August hunts that would orphan calves and insisted that all shoulder season hunts be on private land so that public-land elk weren’t over-hunted.

Steve Schindler of Traditional Bowhunters of Montana was one of several who said his group supported the effort but the guidelines did nothing about the real culprit: people who harbor elk.

Former FWP commissioner Shane Colton of Billings said he was disappointed to see FWP returning to a policy that the commission rejected in 2006 because “it was clear to us that the shoulder seasons were causing the population increase.”

“I understand that you're just passing parameters. But the way I read this information, the die is clearly cast. The shoulder seasons are going to come into play,” Colton said. “Bad policy is created when it’s department driven and not commission driven. And I believe that’s what is happening here.”

Colton saw his prediction come to pass an hour later, after the commissioners voted to approve the guidelines.

When Tourtlotte asked what might happen if the guidelines weren’t approved, FWP Director Jeff Hagener said the commission would have to give him a reason that he report to the governor.

Although all still expressed skepticism, the commissioners decided it was better to have the guidelines in place than have FWP bring shoulder seasons proposals to them without guidelines.

But that’s what happened as Big Game Chief John Vore proposed “pilot” shoulder seasons for 10 districts that are over-objective.

“It deviates from the guidelines but it’s a pilot project,” Hagener said.

During public comment, former FWP commissioner Bob Ream didn’t buy that.

“One is a pilot project; 10 is full-scale implementation,” Ream said.

Nine of the districts were contiguous from the Big Belt to the Bridger mountains while one was in the Missouri Breaks. In the Missouri Breaks, Vore said hunters could hunt bulls using the 100 either-sex permits given out in the regular season.

The seasons would run just this winter from Nov. 30 to Feb 15 except the Missouri Breaks season would start Jan. 1.

Commissioner Gary Wolfe asked whether a 10-week season was necessary.

“We’re going in one swoop from having no late-season hunts to adding in 10 weeks. Is that too much for a pilot project?” Wolfe said.

Vore said the seasons didn’t need to run that long and the commission had the authority to shut a season down, if necessary.

Commissioner Dan Vermillion wasn’t ready to give Vore blanket approval.

After questioning the level of landowner participation in some districts in Region 3, Vermillion took four districts off the table because landowners weren’t allowing public hunting.

“I’m more than happy to do game damage hunts and management hunts this year. But I really feel like if we’re going to do shoulder seasons in 390, 391, 312 and 393, we’re going to need to lay more groundwork,” Vermillion said.