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'An Easter egg hunt for adults': Hundreds flock to Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area for annual antler hunt

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When the clock struck noon Friday, the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area became the center of Montana’s antler hunting universe.

Every year the Blackfoot Clearwater west of Missoula and other wildlife management areas such as the Sun River, Spotted Dog and Beartooth attract antler enthusiasts for the chance to scour some premium big game wintering ground.

“It’s 25,000 acres of traditional critical winter range,” said area biologist Scott Eggeman. “The objective with winter range is to have this area but to also try to relieve some pressure from neighboring private lands.”

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Montana FWP biologist Scott Eggeman, right, waits for high noon

Montana FWP biologist Scott Eggeman, right, waits for high noon Friday to open the gate to the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area.

FWP counted about 1,100 elk on the Blackfoot-Clearwater this year, he said.

Elk and deer shed their antlers each spring and the interest in collecting them has grown in recent decades. To ensure wintering animals remain undisturbed, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks has long kept the areas closed until May.

But this year the Blackfoot-Clearwater opened two weeks later than normal due to lingering deep snow and flooding. While other wildlife management areas opened on May 15, the Friday opening meant a second “opener” for many antler hunters, and the crowds swelled awaiting the gates to swing open at noon.

FWP was out in force for public safety, Eggeman said, with bear encounters one of the primary concerns.

“We’ve had issues in the past with bears, and we want to make sure nobody gets hurt and no bears get hurt,” he said.

Kaleb Dopps of Kalispell waited in the line of trucks outside the area’s east entrance. He has traveled to the Blackfoot-Clearwater for several years for the opener.

“I think it’s just the fact of being out hunting and being in the woods in general,” he said. “It’s like an Easter egg hunt for adults. It’s hard to explain but you get addicted to it, and when you do find a shed, just the stories behind it.”

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Dakota Diller admires his load of bull elk shed antlers

Dakota Diller admires his load of bull elk shed antlers after the opening of the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area at noon.

A few trucks ahead Pat Beaulieu of Florence and a group of long-time Blackfoot-Clearwater antler hunters leaned on the bed of trucks and recalled hunts of the past. As 30-year veterans of the Blackfoot-Clearwater and witnesses to its growth in popularity, they would like to see some rules enforced to keep decorum and fairness, such as not leaving trucks unattended in line to save a spot.

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Shed hunters line up outside

Shed hunters line up outside the gate to the game range Friday waiting for it to open.

Even with a few needed changes in Beaulieu’s mind, the antler hunt is one day he looks forward to.

“It’s a fun deal, it really is, he said. “You’re out in the woods enjoying it and you’re seeing things you don’t see if you’re sitting at home.”

At noon, the line of dirt bikes and trucks snaked through the gate as about a dozen took off on horseback. At first the caravan stayed intact, but then vehicles peeled off onto side roads and spread out along the foothills.

On the east side of the wildlife management area, the picking started sparse with only a few small sheds found in the open. Antler hunters on the west side, however, were having much better luck with seemingly every backpack sporting a shed, or two, or three, or four or five.

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Throngs of people scoured the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area

Throngs of people scoured the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area Friday in search of shed antlers.

Libby Diller of Frenchtown was taking a break with her grandfather Friday afternoon with three elk sheds resting on the grass nearby. One of those sheds was the first elk antler she’d ever found, and she planned to display it in her room.

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With a grin, Libby Diller holds her first elk shed

With a grin, Libby Diller holds her first elk shed Friday at the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area.

“It’s just a family thing we do every year,” she said. “It was really exciting finding it, just that adrenaline rush you get.”

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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