More elk proposed for Bitterroot, Swan and Flathead Fork districts

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks wants elk hunters to have a little more opportunity in western Montana.

On Thursday, the FWP Commission tentatively approved a proposal to increase elk population objectives in areas of the Bitterroot, Swan, Middle and South Fork of the Flathead rivers and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

In the Swan and Middle and South Fork Flathead – hunting districts 130, 140 and 141 where objectives have been 225 elk - FWP would set an objective range of 150-320.

The Swan Valley was home to 1,415 elk in 1984 and now has less than half of that.

To the south and east in the Bob Marshall Wilderness – hunting districts 150 and 151 which have objectives of 400 – FWP is proposing a range of 310 to 500 elk.

Elk populations in these districts have been over-objective, but Game Management Chief John Vore said that hasn’t really made sense since those elk winter on public land that has the capacity to be home to more elk.

“We have very few private-land issues there. Those that do occur are in the Swan Valley but we have a relatively low density of elk there. In the South and Middle Fork, it’s more than 95 percent public land,” Vore said. “It’s an area where we’ve heard from hunters that there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have more elk. By establishing a range, it’s something we can more easily manage toward.”

The lower elk objectives were set in 2005 before the Swan Valley experienced a huge shift in land ownership.

Under the Forest Legacy Program, Plum Creek Timber recently sold easements and fee title of its timberlands there to the U.S. Forest Service with the help of the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Had those transactions not gone through, Plum Creek would have sold parcels to private parties, thus possibly limiting elk management options.

Commission chair Dan Vermillion said the small amount of remaining private land in the Swan Valley is mostly vacation homes with little agricultural land.

“It’s got be about the healthiest grizzly bear and wolf populations we have in the state so you’ve kind of got a natural population governor there,” Vermillion said.

In the seven hunting districts of the Bitterroot Valley, FWP is proposing an overall increase of just 80 elk but objectives in individual districts have greater changes. FWP has also upped the objectives for bulls and calves.

Notable is a reduction in the objective of District 250 at the southern end of Ravalli County from 2,000 to 1,400.

That’s countered by a 300-elk increase in District 270 to 3,800. However, the CB Ranch, which doesn’t allow hunting, accounts for a good proportion of District 270. So the objective on public land around the ranch would jump to 3,000 from 2,600.

Vore said the changes came from the input from several meetings with sportsmen and landowners in the two regions.

But it once again raised the issue of FWP using elk objectives that are now more than a decade old so they often don’t reflect the land-use and ownership changes that have occurred in the meantime.

Objectives are based upon the science of what the land can support but they also consider landowner tolerance for wildlife and hunter desire. All three can change as Montana becomes more populated.

At previous commission meetings, Vore said FWP doesn't have the resources to develop more than one management plan at a time and it’s currently working on the mountain lion plan.

But a lack of confidence in the population objectives of the 2005 plan has caused commissioners to struggle with decisions dealing with elk damage hunts and shoulder seasons.

Alternatively, some landowners point to the objectives and accuse FWP of not doing its job when many districts have elk populations that are above the man-made numbers. A state law required all districts to be at objective by 2009.

At Thursday’s meeting, Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, commented that the objectives shouldn’t be increased unless FWP conducted range studies. Kary tried to pass a bill that would have mandated elk shoulder seasons. It failed but FWP is considering moving ahead with shoulder seasons.

“I’m afraid that when you take and move this, you’re setting a bad, bad precedent, and it could have legal consequences,” Kary said.

Vermillion said the public was clamoring for more elk in the Bitterroot.

“My sense is that if the department wants to engage in elk studies, the money would be better spent in areas where you really do have questions of carrying capacity or whether the herd is impacting landowners. These districts are the easy ones.”

The proposal goes out to public comment until Sept. 7. The commission will make a final decision on Oct. 8.