Montana’s wildlife officials took heat — even from retired staffers — over proposals that would continue six-month elk hunting seasons for another year.
Known as shoulder seasons, the Fish and Wildlife Commission on Thursday advanced and modified a confusing amalgamation of regulations from Fish, Wildlife and Parks for public comment before action is to be taken in February.
“I must admit I am thoroughly disappointed by this department,” said Joe Perry, a Conrad farmer who has worked on a variety of Fish, Wildlife and Parks advisory boards. “The department has lost its way on this issue.”
On the other side of the coin, landowners and ranching groups advocated for keeping the extended hunts.
“The late season is effective,” said Matt Gravely, an Avon-area rancher who said the animals had already crowded around his barn after the end of the five-week rifle season.
He criticized the commission for not giving more consideration to landowners’ concerns, calling it “very distressing.”
In fact, however, the entire issue has always revolved around landowners’ concerns.
Passed in 2015, the longer seasons were meant to reduce cow elk populations on private lands where they are over objective. The target populations, called objectives, were based on what landowners would tolerate. Managing to those objectives was mandated by the 2003 Legislature.
The Montana Legislature again stepped into the issue in 2015, passing a bill re-instating a late cow elk hunt. Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed the measure, instead charging FWP to come up with its own plan. The result was a trial shoulder season in 2015 that was later expanded to more hunting districts that had growing elk populations.
The Legislature again stepped into the issue this year — in legislation drafted by a rancher — by passing a bill allowing the issuance of a third elk license. The extra license is an attempt to increase harvest by those hunters who are most successful. It’s estimated that less than 20% of Montana elk hunters fill their tags. The proposal defining use of the third elk license is also now out for public consideration and would be implemented next hunting season.
The crux of the problem continues to be access to private lands. Without access no number of hunters will reduce elk that seek safe havens on lands where they aren’t pursued.
Some sportsmen have continually denounced the extended seasons, which bracket the archery and rifle seasons by starting in mid-August and ending in mid-February, because of the stress they place on sometimes pregnant (winter) or postpartum (summer) cow elk.
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J.W. Westman, representing the Laurel Rod and Gun Club, questioned why the department seemed to be treating the elk like “vermin. Where does it all end?” he said.
Others have noted that there’s no elk overpopulation on public lands, where there’s access to the animals.
“We’ve been at this four years and do have a fair amount of data,” said Nick Gevock, conservation director for the Montana Wildlife Federation, a sportsmen’s coalition. “Shoulder seasons have not increased access to elk, and in fact in some areas access has decreased.
“We don’t want this to become the preferred season structure.”
Recognizing the division between hunters, landowners and other members of the public over the issue, an admittedly nervous FWP director Martha Williams preceded the discussion by telling the commissioners the shoulder seasons have “become representative of some deeply held values” but that the department had worked hard with its staff to develop the recommendations that soon came under fire.
A frustrated John Vore, Game Management Bureau chief, told the commission that his staff had run out of ideas. In 2018 the agency had proposed limiting bull elk hunting in districts where elk were over objective, along with issuing elk B tags for cows only — over the counter rather than through a drawing. The commission shot down that idea amid landowner protests.
“I understand some people don’t like shoulder seasons, but what else are we going to do?” Vore asked.
The state’s elk population is now 20,000 head over objective and game damage hunts used in the past have not historically provided the reduction the department must meet, he added.
Shane Colton, Fish and Wildlife Commission chairman, crafted another option for consideration by the public that would pull several hunting districts from the shoulder season hunts where elk populations were not declining. Instead, FWP will craft a combination of game damage and management hunts for those areas. Those hunts would extend only to Jan. 1.
Colton based the proposal on shoulder season criteria created by the commission in 2015 that in part said if a hunting district wasn’t meeting objectives then the extended hunts would be pulled.
“The anxieties in 2015 created these guidelines,” Colton said.
The commission had also initially committed to shoulder seasons for only three years, but fell into this fourth year because hunting regulations had been approved and printed before action was taken.
The commission itself is divided on Colton’s proposal, with Commissioner Tim Aldrich, of Missoula, advocating for more time for shoulder seasons to work and Commissioner Richard Stuker, of Chinook, saying it was a step in the right direction even if he didn’t wholeheartedly agree.