As Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks tries to plan the next two years of elk hunting, the biggest problem appears to be antiquated population goals that were carved out 14 years ago.
That was what the FWP commission struggled with on Thursday as it tried to figure out whether proposed hunting quotas were adequate and if shoulder seasons were long enough.
Big Game Chief John Vore said the season proposals allowed more liberal hunting opportunities and more consistent dates for shoulder seasons because all the seasons would be extended until Feb. 15. Previously, shoulder seasons in Region 5 ran only until Jan. 1. As a result of that and a continuing lack of access, at least six of the hunting areas in Region 5 have elk herds that are more than 200 percent above population objective.
On the other hand, the 2004 Elk Management Plan set the population objective for hunting districts 702, 704 and 705 at only 200 elk. That’s become a problem because elk populations in Region 7 have expanded the most in the state. Commission Chair Dan Vermillion said the low objectives set in 2004 needed to reflect the larger elk numbers.
Two years ago, Commissioner Ron Tourtlotte questioned the validity of the population objectives when FWP first proposed using shoulder seasons, and on Thursday, Vermillion raised the issue again.
“Every two years, the department gets beat up by the Legislature because we can’t get to the numbers that were set in 2003 without wholesale destruction of the elk population (in Region 7). I get that they have impacts on landowners. But the longer we go, the less likely we have numbers that reflect a) landowner tolerance and b) carrying capacity because everything has changed in the past 15 years,” Vermillion said.
Vore said he didn’t have the money or the manpower to rewrite the 2004 Elk Plan yet. The department is finishing its mountain lion management plan and then it will take two years of assessment and public input to write the next elk plan, Vore said. He also echoed a warning made by former FWP Director Jeff Hagener.
“Director Hagener said if we open up revisiting the population objectives, some could also go down,” Vore said.
But the population objectives are what drive the need for shoulder seasons. FWP is at the tail end of a three-year evaluation period using late shoulder seasons to control elk numbers in 43 hunting districts. The 2018 season should be the last to determine whether the seasons worked. In some cases, they brought elk numbers down.
But part of the deal was that landowners had to provide enough access that at least 50 percent of the elk harvest would occur during the regular season. In some areas, that’s not happening.
Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock encouraged the commission to add cow-only hunting during the general season in the districts that were over-objective rather than extending the shoulder season.
But Vore argued for the longer season, saying that most areas where hunting ran until Feb. 15 met their harvest objectives or came within 95 percent of the objective.
“In Region 5, the problem is access, but in December, some hunters were getting that access. But we don’t allow them to do that in January and part of February,” Vore said. “We’re using less than half of that tool.”
But Commissioner Richard Stuker pointed out that the landowners in Region 5 asked that the shoulder seasons end on Jan. 1 and he didn’t advise ignoring their input or hunters might lose what access they have.
Vermillion said more focus should be put on the general season because that was part of the original shoulder-season proposal. If some districts weren’t meeting all aspects of that proposal after three years, from harvest numbers to adequate hunter access, then FWP needed to come up with other alternatives.
“This department needs to prove why it needs a fourth year if we haven’t changed the dynamic during the general season. Because I don’t think we want the general season being for one group of people and the shoulder season is for the rest of us,” Vermillion said.
Commissioner Shane Colton wasn’t happy that the department was advocating for shoulder seasons over other hunting options based upon old population objectives.
“Frustratingly I hear the enthusiasm for the shoulder seasons from the department as being this great fix. It is working, but I’m still stymied by the idea that we’re hunting elk for seven months in Montana. Who’d have thought that was a reasonable approach?” Colton said. “I also struggle with the idea that one week, this animal is worth anywhere from $6,000 to $13,000 and the next week, it’s treated like a rodent. We’ve lost, I fear.”
Both the elk season changes and shoulder season proposal is now out for public comment.