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Elk

Management of elk populations in hunting districts that are not meeting shoulder season criteria is frustrating the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission.

The Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ staff has been “unresponsive” in drafting new hunting proposals embracing the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s expressed desire to move away from six-month shoulder seasons in hunting districts where they haven’t met performance criteria.

That was the essence of the criticism leveled at the agency during a work session of the commission on Monday.

“I want to see some elk management,” said commissioner Pat Byorth, of Bozeman. “There are other tools we can use.”

For the 2019 hunting season, the fourth year of the long hunting periods known as elk shoulder seasons, 50 hunting districts had the extended seasons. The hunts can start as early as Aug. 15 and run until as late as Feb. 15. Right now FWP is holding meetings across the state concerning hunting regulation changes. At its Feb. 13 meeting the commission will finalize those proposals.

FWP response

In the face of the scolding, which was subdued, FWP director Martha Williams said her staff would “demonstrate that shoulder seasons are not our preferred method but that you’re not taking that tool away.”

She said over the next month FWP would work with the public and commission to identify where the shoulder seasons are functioning and where other methods of increasing elk harvest would be more practical.

Commission chairman Shane Colton suggested that he would like to see a specific license that would apply to several of the hunting districts where shoulder seasons haven’t worked. That license would allow hunting beginning with the rifle season opener in October and run until Jan. 1.

“It’s my desire to figure out a way to jump-start some of these districts that are way under criteria, rather than continuing shoulder seasons,” he said.

Under a new law passed by the Legislature, hunters in some districts would also be able to purchase three elk tags next hunting season. At least one of those tags would have to be a surplus antlerless elk license, in other words one that didn’t sell through the regular process and is left over. In theory, if enough surplus cow elk licenses were available and a hunter had not purchased an A or B elk tag, they could buy three surplus licenses.

Middle ground

The notion that abandoning shoulder seasons would result in a lessened elk harvest raised the hackles of a few commissioners.

Byorth denounced the idea that the so-called elk shoulder seasons were increasing harvests and therefore are the best way to meet state statutes for decreasing elk numbers where they are above population objectives.

“Somewhere in the middle is where we need to be,” he said.

Although praising the department for being willing to listen to the group’s concerns, commissioner Logan Brower of Scobey said he did not support continuing “something that is not working” and wants the department to show some initiative in developing alternatives.

Commissioner Richard Stuker, of Chinook, expressed concern that in hunting districts where shoulder seasons are abandoned some landowners would protest by restricting hunter access. He also said that the early elk shoulder season, which starts in August, has been popular with some farmers as a way to chase elk out of crops.

Yet he also noted, “I don’t like harvesting elk for six months.”

Stuker also said that the idea of going to a cow-only elk hunt as a way to depress populations would rile landowners who see it as a “punitive measure.”

Yet Colton pointed out that in some districts that are “dramatically underperforming” the objective for the bull elk harvest is being met or exceeded. Bull elk are valuable to landowners who lease their land to hunters or outfitters. Some hunters decry such monetization of wildlife, which is a public resource, while others say landowners are justified in charging since wildlife dine on their crops.

Only commissioner Tim Aldrich, of Missoula, seemed willing to be patient when it comes to the six-month shoulder seasons, noting it wasn’t time to “raise the white flag.” Yet he also added that it “might take some changes from what’s on the table at this point.”

Planning

Williams said that the commission’s discussion and questions emphasized the need for a new elk management plan.

Some hunters have pointed to the current Montana Statewide Elk Management Plan, finalized in 2004, to support their claims that the elk population objectives in some hunting districts are unrealistic.

Page 55 of the plan clearly states that “inaccessible elk may not be included in objective numbers. Trend count number objectives may include only elk normally accessible to general hunting.” But the plan also states that consideration will be given to landowners regarding elk damage complaints when setting objectives.

The 2004 plan noted the “increasingly complex” nature of managing Montana’s elk population. That complexity seems to have increased as elk numbers have continued to grow — mainly on large tracts of private land — and hunter access to some private lands has decreased.

Colton stressed that the shoulder seasons were never created with the idea of being permanent.

“If that’s a standard we’re going to hold ourselves to … we need to come clean and say this is the new elk season in Montana,” he said.

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