Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is proposing to cut back on extended elk hunts next season. It comes several weeks after the Fish and Wildlife Commission said the agency should find other ways to drop elk numbers on private land.
Around 50 people largely clad in muted greens, grays and browns recently filled up the conference room at Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Region 3 headquarters.
The event is one of several dozen public meetings that have been held across the state as FWP goes through its biennial process of updating hunting district boundaries and regulations.
Some of the proposals are really specific, like dissolving the borders between three hunting districts for moose in Region 3 and reducing the wolf kill quota from two to one around Cooke City.
But one of the issues that seems to have struck a nerve at the recent meeting in Bozeman and across the state has to do with extended seasons for elk hunting.
“We have a major elk problem in our area,” Sky Anderson says, adding large elk herds can damage fences and fields on his family’s ranch north of Livingston. “You guys want to come out to kill elk. We as landowners want you to come kill elk.”
Anderson says landowners and hunters benefit from something called elk shoulder seasons.
Several years ago, some hunting districts in the state, including where Anderson lives, were allowed to extend the hunting season for antlerless elk on private land. These extensions can start as early as August 15 and end as late as February 15.
They’re intended to reduce large elk herds, improve public access on private land and increase landowner flexibility.
But earlier this month the Fish and Wildlife Commission told FWP to move away from six month long hunts in areas that weren’t meeting their elk kill quotas and to look for new strategies. Now FWP is proposing dropping the elk shoulder seasons in 18 of the 57 Hunting Districts where they were allowed in 2019, including Hunting District 393 where Anderson lives.
“We want to create that relationship with you, the hunters, and we want to get you guys out to kill elk. So work with us and vote against this whole proposal of shutting down the shoulder season,” Anderson says.
Hayden Bails also says he supports the shoulder season.
“I come from a ranching family in Oregon and now I’m a public land hunter like everybody else. I’ve fixed a lot of fence. I’ve picked up a lot of haystacks that elk have eaten out of, and I really appreciate the shoulder seasons, being another opportunity for folks to fill the freezers,” Bails says.
But Barry Robinson in the front row disagrees.
“We have some of the most liberal elk hunting seasons in the county. If you can’t get it done in three and a half months -- we don’t need to be running these seasons for six months out of the year,” Robinson says.
Many people in the audience nod and say they agree.
One of the men sitting near Robinson says he’s worried shoulder seasons put too much pressure on elk.
FWP Wildlife Biologist Julie Cunningham says the shoulder season can work well in certain hunting districts. She points to one near Bozeman that helped drop elk numbers and appease landowners.
But she says there are strategies that have or could work better in other parts of the region.
Cunningham says sometimes multiple adjacent landowners will organize into one big unit. They’ll notify FWP when elk become a problem, which then allows the agency to send out hunters.
She says this can work better than individuals calling into the office because by the time hunters get there, the elk might have moved over to the neighbor's property.
Another management option on the table stems from a new law passed by the 2019 state legislature. It would allow hunters in some districts the option of purchasing three elk tags next hunting season.
About a dozen people at the meeting spoke in opposition to this idea. One person asked why anyone would need three elk in their freezer.
As the meeting wraps up, FWP biologist Julie Cunningham thanks people for voicing their opinions.
“Even if folks haven’t always agreed, I think that it’s awesome you’re part of the process -- that’s really important -- and that you’re brave enough to speak up, speak your piece in what you believe in,” Cunningham says.
The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission is expected to make a final decision on all of the proposals at its next meeting February 13.
Comments can be submitted to FWP by 5 pm on Monday, January 27, online, via e-mail at email@example.com or mail at FWP Wildlife Division, PO Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620-0701.