FWP slates shoulder-season hunts for 44 elk districts

Pilot projects to test the new elk shoulder seasons are barely a week underway, but Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is already planning more than 10 times as many shoulder seasons next year.

At Thursday’s FWP commission meeting, Big Game Chief John Vore ran through an extensive list of elk hunting districts where shoulder seasons would be opened as early as August 2016 and run through the following March. The shoulder seasons would be effective for the next four years, although Vore said the commission could terminate a season at any time.

In addition, he proposed that some districts be redrawn in order to better accommodate land ownership, terrain and the proposed shoulder seasons.

The myriad of proposals were convoluted, varying by time period, type of license or permit and area open to hunting. The commissioners had to ask a number of times for clarification and doubted whether license salesmen could keep the differences straight.

In Region 1, HD 101 and 109 northwest of Whitefish would have early shoulder seasons because they have a lot of small landowners, making it hard to get public rifle hunters in during the regular season.

In Region 2, HD 210, 215, 217, 281, 290, 291 and 298 would have shoulder seasons because all have elk populations that are over objective. HD 292 near Potomac isn’t over objective, but it has a lot of small properties like in Region 1 that make hunting difficult.

Vore proposed splitting HD 212, west of Deer Lodge, and turning the northern portion into HD 217 for archery only.

“This north area is where we’ve had quite a bit of problems with elk, and the population is over objective so we want the hunting district to address those problems,” Vore said.

Near Townsend in Region 3, HD 390, 391 and 393 would have shoulder seasons to bring elk populations back down below objective. But HD 391 would be split, and the eastern side would be turned into HD 451. Also, the north boundary of HD 391 would push up into HD 392.

“What that would do is take all of that agricultural land on the flats west of the Belt Mountains and put it all in one district. And most of 392 would be very similar in topography, geography and land ownership,” Vore said.

But it was a change in Region 4 that caught Commissioner Dan Vermillion’s attention. FWP is proposing to take HD 426 near Denton out of a bundle of limited archery districts and give it an either-sex elk general rifle season.

“It looks like we’re talking about a district that has 200 or 300 elk. It looked like your numbers were pretty small. So, can that district withstand unlimited general season opportunity and still have a viable elk herd?” Vermillion said. “It strikes me that this is being driven by a landowner tolerance that is about zero.”

Region 4 Wildlife Chief Graham Taylor said HD 426 has had only 50 elk in the past, so the district was over objective. The landowners proposed expanding to a general season so they could get elk tags, Taylor said.

“Maybe local folks will have good hunting for a while. I worry about the long-term access opportunities for folks that don’t live in this district,” Vermillion said.

Commissioner Richard Stuker asked if it wouldn’t be better to allow a break of a week or two after the regular season to let elk move around and give landowners a rest. Most of the proposed shoulder seasons start right after the regular season.

That question and several others were also asked by some of the public who weighed in on the proposal.

Several landowners opposed the shoulder seasons in their districts or wanted different limitations, such as curtailing the number of hunters. Some complained that they had been excluded from discussions when the shoulder seasons were proposed.

Commissioner Gary Wolfe said he was surprised at landowner opposition to the shoulder seasons because all the landowners who called him wanted them.

A majority of hunters’ comments questioned the department’s rapid jump from four simple pilot projects this season to 44 complicated shoulder seasons next season.

Some said more data was needed, and it would be hard to know if the pilot projects were effective because elk harvest data won’t be available until at least April.

“I’m concerned about the overwhelming nature of all these proposals all at once,” said Bozeman hunter Glenn Hockett. “It seems like we should let the pilot projects play out and see how they work. This seems like a giant leap into something we said we’d study.”

The commission tentatively approved the proposals in order to put them out to public comment. Vermillion said he expected a few things might change before the final vote in February.

“There’s a lot of concern about how we move forward on this. If you run a season from Aug. 15 to Feb. 15, you’re hunting elk for six months a year. There’s a question as to whether we want to treat one of Montana’s most majestic game animals in that way and hunt them that hard that long,” Vermillion said.