A contentious proposal to extend elk hunting from August into February in 43 Montana hunting districts — down from the 44 originally proposed — comes before the Fish and Wildlife Commission for approval on Thursday in Helena.

After meetings held statewide that generated about 700 comments, the regulations were slightly modified, according to John Vore, Fish, Wildlife and Parks game management bureau chief. The highlighted changes can be found online in the commission’s agenda in the Elk Master List.

“In most cases there won’t be an archery season overlapping with the rifle season,” Vore said, one of the main concerns that came up at meetings.

These changes will affect Regions 3, 4, 5 and 6. The overlap will be maintained in Regions 1 and 2.

“We need to maintain that early season from August into October because it’s a rich opportunity to harvest elk,” Vore said. “Archery seasons provide recreation, but it is not a management tool.”

The extended seasons are meant to reduce the state’s overpopulation of elk, which when added up are 29,000 above department population goals.

“So if we are going to be serious about reaching population objectives we need to be serious about harvesting elk,” Vore said.

With so much confusion about the shoulder seasons — which was enacted on a trial basis this winter in the White Sulphur Springs area — Vore said it’s important to stress that the shoulder seasons are performance based. The department still wants to see the majority of the elk harvested during the regular season, or it will drop the shoulder season.

Another hot topic among FWP’s hunting proposals was the reduction in the bull elk harvest in Hunting District 313 near Gardiner and north of Yellowstone National Park. With declining bull numbers showing up in department counts, FWP proposed cutting the district to only 75 branch-antlered bull permits. An active and vocal group of outfitters in the Gardiner area criticized the reduction as unnecessary and said it would kill a portion of the area’s winter economy.

Faced with such disapproval, FWP modified its recommendation to 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 the annual drawings.

The agency clarified how it would measure if the restrictions are working: “If we observe 10 or more brow-tined bulls per 100 cows for two consecutive years within HD 313, then we will consider that this change has been successful. 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.”

Hunters in HD 313 were also warned, though, that if the restrictions don’t work to raise the ratio of bulls to cows in the herd, a shorter season or extension of when only permits are allowed may be implemented.

“This strikes a balance,” Vore said. “We don’t expect it to cure the problem as quickly as we would have liked, but it maintains opportunity.”

In addition, FWP is extending its emergency closure area to protect elk migrating from Yellowstone to Montana winter range. The closure would range from Deckard Flats next to the park boundary north to Trail Creek. In the past the closure was at Deckard Flats only, which simply pushed the “firing line” to Eagle Creek, Vore said.

The commission will meet at 8:30 a.m. at Montana Wild in Helena. People may listen to the meeting online at the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks website. Some of the other items on the agenda include:

  • 2016 and 2017 hunting rules, season dates, quota ranges and structures for deer, antelope, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bison, black bears, mountain lions, upland game birds and migratory game birds.
  • Expansion of the number of elk hunting districts in northwestern Montana where certain permission holders may hunt from a vehicle.
  • Quota ranges for a Helena urban deer hunt.
  • Maximum numbers of deer, elk and antelope that can be harvested during damage hunts and management seasons.
  • A five-year commercial carp fishing permit for Lake Helena and Canyon Ferry Reservoir.
  • A proposed channel-migration easement on the Navratil property in Eastern Montana.
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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.