Elk hunting opportunities will be reduced for the next two years for those pursuing the iconic Northern Yellowstone herd as it migrates into Montana near Gardiner in Hunting District 313, but not as much as many hunters originally feared.

A greater reduction in hunting opportunity was originally proposed by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in November, limiting the hunt to 75 permit holders. Strong public opposition prompted the agency to back off its original proposal to offer more hunting opportunity.

The new recommendation, approved by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, will allow a brow-tine bull harvest with a general tag during the archery season and the first three weeks of the rifle season. The last two weeks of the rifle season would be open to mature bull hunting only for those who possess a permit. Only 50 of the permits will be issued through annual drawings.

The commission modified the department’s recommendation to change the 30 youth and 30 other B licenses to antlerless permits. The agency felt those tags were necessary to help landowners reduce the threat of cow elk presence on their property as possible carriers of the disease brucellosis.

The department’s goal is to count 10 or more brow-tined bulls per 100 cows for two consecutive years within HD 313. According to FWP’s annual elk counts, the number of adult bulls per 100 cows counted in Montana fell to 2.7 last winter. The last time the count for the herd was above 10 bulls per 100 cows was in 2002.

“Alternately, the long-term average among the entire elk population is 23.2 brow-tined bulls per 100 cows. If we observe 18.5 brow-tined bulls per 100 cows for two consecutive years among the entire elk population including HD 313 and the northern range of Yellowstone National Park we will consider this proposal successful,” the department said in its proposal.

“What we’re trying to do is get as quickly as we can to those days when there’s a five-week brow-tined bull season in Hunting District 313,” said commissioner Dan Vermillion, of Livingston.

Whether the modified elk season would achieve that goal is uncertain, said John Vore, FWP game management bureau chief. Under the best scenario he said the herd would reach the goal in four years, but it “may never get there.”

Commissioner Richard Stuker agreed that the more liberalized hunt may not help the department reach its goal and in two years more restrictive regulations will be required.

The herd is iconic because it summers in Yellowstone National Park, which last year saw more than 4 million visitors.

“I would urge you to stop and think if this compromise helps you reach the original objective,” said Ron Moody, a former Fish and Wildlife Commissioner. “You are contemplating managing very close to the bone with no margin of error. I recommend you build back a margin of error.”

Even liberalizing the regulations left opponents displeased who said the hunts provide meat for families as well as income for outfitters and Gardiner-area businesses.

“I don’t think we’re at the point of a biological crisis,” said Mac Minard of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association.

“This is going to affect a lot of people no matter what you decide,” said Edward Johnson, an Montana State University student who was raised in Gardiner.

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