In many parts of the state, elk season will now last as long as six months.
On Thursday, the Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission sat through more than two hours of discussion and comments before approving, with a few modifications, the next round of elk shoulder seasons. For the next two years, rifle season will extend mostly from Aug. 15 until Feb. 15 in about 40 hunting districts. But outside the general season, hunters can harvest only cows.
Public comment showed that hunters and landowners both supported and opposed the seasons, with the difference often dependent on their location in the state.
The biggest change FWP made to the proposal made in December was eliminating the overlap between archery season and the early rifle seasons in the central and eastern part of the state. The biggest issue for Commissioner Richard Stuker was that FWP kept the overlap in Regions 1 and 2.
FWP Big Game Chief John Vore said the overlap wasn’t as big a problem in those regions because the districts with shoulder seasons had mostly small pieces of private property that bowhunters wouldn’t be using anyway. That’s particularly the case for the two Region 1 districts around Eureka – 101 and 109.
However, Region 2 wasn’t as cut and dried.
Chairman Dan Vermillion pointed out that HD 210 southwest of Drummond has a lot of public land. Vore agreed but said only private land would be used for the early season, which could potentially drive more elk onto public land where bowhunters are.
“That archery season is a very rich time to harvest elk. This is when landowners are experiencing the problems,” Vore said. “Archery hunting is not a population management tool like rifle hunting is.”
Commissioner Ron Tourtlotte made it clear throughout the meeting that he had several misgivings about shoulder seasons. In this case, he said he received many complaints from bowhunters and questioned why the season overlap wasn’t eliminated statewide.
“Had the pilot projects been rolled out more slowly, we may have had a chance to know more about what archers truly think and how it’s going to affect their season before we potentially, in some instances ruin it,” Tourtlotte said.
Region 2 Supervisor Randy Arnold said early shoulder seasons wouldn’t differ much from the early damage hunts that occur every year, except they’d be more effective.
“In this part of the state, because agricultural operations tend to be separate pivots, we don’t have the luxury of doing larger management seasons over multiple landowners,” Arnold said.
Hunter Rod Bullis worried about such a long hunting season in HD 298 near Helmville because public land elk tend to migrate through part of the area in the winter. Region 2 Wildife Chief Mike Thompson agreed there was a mix of elk and said he could go either way on that district.
Two ranchers from the Avon area near HD 215 said they would put up with months of phone calls from hunters in order to get rid of some of the elk that tear up their haystacks.
“I love seeing wildlife, I love seeing elk. But I don’t like seeing 200 head of them. They cost me a lot of money,” said Avon rancher Brian Quigley. “This shoulder season is a way for those of us who do allow hunting to distribute the elk and push them onto other land and hopefully other landowners will see the light.”
Commissioners Tourtlotte and Gary Wolfe said they still weren’t comfortable with allowing the late season to run until Feb. 15 when cows are pregnant with calves. Wolfe suggested an end date in early January, but FWP staff resisted.
“We want to get a response as quick as we can. The longer we fail to do that, the more difficult it is to achieve. When we get our population down to where we can reinstitute a greater emphasis on recreation and fair chase, I think that’s where we’re all headed,” Thompson said. “We’re all going through a lot of effort here and breaking a lot of old traditions to accomplish something. Why break those eggs if we aren’t going to do what we set out to do?”
In Region 3, shoulder seasons were proposed for only three districts because landowners in a fourth district, HD 391 near Townsend, refused to participate. After the chaos of shoot-outs during the regular season, they didn’t want open hunting for more than five weeks.
GT Ranch manager Jeff Brozovich said he’d managed to kill 78 elk on his ranch with management hunts and other landowners had similar results. But Region 3 Wildlife Chief Howard Burt said it would take more than that to bring the population down. That could cause problems in the three adjoining districts were shoulder seasons are scheduled. Stuker said he probably couldn’t support the shoulder seasons there because they could cause landowners who didn’t want to participate to close access to hunters during the general season. But he had no problem approving shoulder seasons in Region 4.
Vermillion, however, questioned a shoulder season in HD 411 because the billionaire Wilks brothers own the majority of it and HD 530 as part of the NBar Ranch and they normally don’t allow public access. That’s part of the reason the elk population is so much over objective at more than 5,000.
“We’re trying to harvest 50 percent of the (annual calf crop) during the general season. How do we do that if that huge chunk in the middle is closed and you’re really only hunting on the outside of the east and western edges?” Vermillion said. “After the Durfee Hills trade was pulled, it didn’t strike me that the spirit of cooperation was still alive and well.”
The Wilkses tried for more than two years to manipulate a land trade with the Bureau of Land Management to gain control of the Durfee Hills.
Stuker said he trusted the region’s recommendation. Tourtlotte said he’d defer to the staff but would be looking hard at the performance criteria a year from now.
When it came to his district – District 5 – Tourtlotte said he wanted all shoulder seasons to end Jan. 1. He agreed to extend the deadline to Jan. 15 for districts 511 and 530 north of the Musselshell River. FWP staff said a Jan. 1 end date would complicate management with neighboring districts 411 and 412 running until Feb. 15. HD 411 and 412 were also given end dates of Jan. 15.
In Region 6, the flap was over the districts that fall within the American Prairie Reserve, a privately owned wildlife reserve of about 300,000 acres that also leases land.
Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock said the APR wanted higher elk population objectives because it wants more wildlife.
Stuker opposed that saying it would have a similar effect on APR’s neighbors as harboring – if the elk couldn’t find food, they’d pilfer the hay of other livestock owners.
“American Prairie Reserve has eliminated hay on most of their land, so the wildlife doesn’t go there. They are looking at seeding areas with alfalfa. But without that, elk are going to go to the farmer or rancher that does have alfalfa fields,” Stuker said. “Until they do that, objectives can’t be revisited.”
In other commission action, elk hunting north of Yellowstone National Park will be slightly curtailed but not as much as Fish, Wildlife & Parks first proposed.
The commission voted unanimously to approve a reduced elk-hunting plan for Hunting District 313 near Gardiner. For the 2016 season, FWP will offer a 3-week general season on brow-tined bulls only and the last two weeks of the season will have 50 limited-draw permits for brow-tined bulls. To allow some cow opportunity, 60 “B” permits will also be available. Should biologists become concerned about too many bulls being taken, the commissioners will also have the option to close elk hunting on Deckert Flats and the Eagle Basin as far as Trail Creek.
This plan was a step back from the original proposal that commissioners heard in December.
The herd has declined over the past 20 years to about 5,000 elk that migrate between the Gardiner Basin and Yellowstone Park. But more than the overall numbers, biologist Karen Loveless was concerned about the bull-cow ratio, which has been about 2 brow-tined bulls to 100 cows since 2009. A decade earlier, it was about 20 bulls for every 100 cows.