More elk were killed last hunting season — almost 31,000 — than at any time since harvest surveys began 16 years ago, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks data.

“It was an excellent year last year, even during the general season,” said John Vore, FWP’s Game Management Bureau chief. “Conditions were just right, and possibly there were more landowners letting folks on.”

Last season’s harvest got a small boost when FWP extended the season in five hunting districts in Region 4 until Feb. 15. Now called shoulder seasons, the extended hunting dates were a controversial move that angered some who believe the late hunts stress female elk when they are pregnant and treat them more like pests than prized big game. The longer hunt in those areas resulted in the removal of more than 600 cow elk.

“With the 2015 pilot project we learned you can harvest a lot of elk if landowners cooperate,” Vore said.

Summer shoulders

The extended elk hunting seasons were expanded to 43 hunting districts this year and include recently finished late-summer hunts. FWP has heard little about how the summer shoulder seasons went.

“I think the word we heard from the regions is that things were pretty quiet,” said Quentin Kujala, FWP’s Wildlife Management Section chief.

He wonders how that early rifle hunting of cow elk on private land may redistribute elk for archery hunters.

“Hopefully we can keep harvesting a lot of elk, especially in those areas where they are over objective,” Vore said.

He was referring to the hunting districts across the state where social tolerance has deemed the elk populations too high. The challenge for FWP has been to lower those elk numbers on private lands where public hunting access is limited or nonexistent.

The figures

According to the harvest survey results, which only capture a portion of the total elk hunters, in 2015 there were more than 13,700 bulls, 15,700 cows and almost 2,000 elk calves killed during the hunting season by residents and nonresidents.

That 2015 figure is up from a total elk harvest of more than 25,700 in 2014 and 20,100 in 2013. The previous record-high harvest was in 2003 when 29,000 elk were killed by hunters.

The majority of the elk shot in 2015, about 53 percent, were taken on private land. That’s a slight shift from the previous two years and may show a trend of landowners being more willing to allow hunter access, as well as more hunters being successful on state Block Management Areas — places where FWP pays landowners to allow controlled public access.

Or maybe it just means there are more elk on private land. Elk distribution on private land increased by 17 percent between 2004 and 2015, according to FWP.

“We can’t definitively say what does this tell us, there are a couple of different possibilities,” Kujala said.

What the survey numbers can’t show is a “good side-by-side understanding of what’s the availability of elk on those different ownerships” — public lands versus private, he said.

“It really is a piece of information that needs additional context,” he added. “For now, though, it establishes a baseline.”

Fun with numbers

One of the other unique items of information conveyed in the three years of elk harvest survey results is that the region where more elk are consistently taken is Region 3 in southwestern Montana. This seems a bit odd considering that Region 3 surrounds the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, an area rich with predators like wolves, grizzly bears and mountain lions.

Another statistic that shows up in the survey is that Region 6, in northeastern Montana, is the place with the highest amount of elk harvested on public land. That’s thanks to the large swaths of state and federal acreage in the area.

“If you think about where elk are distributed in Region 6, on the BLM lands and (Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge), then it makes sense,” Kujala said.

According to the 2015 data, in most regions the cow elk and bull harvests are fairly equal, with the cow harvest typically a bit higher but not by much. The exception is Region 1 in northwest Montana where the bull harvest accounts for about 73 percent of the total elk killed.

Another unusual number in the data is that of the elk hunters surveyed it was in Region 5 where more paid an access fee — 8.4 percent. Region 5 surrounds the Billings area. The area where the fewest number of surveyed hunters paid a fee was Region 2, also in northwest Montana, where only .2 percent of hunters shelled out for access.

Perspective

Montana FWP has been under steadily increasing pressure from some legislators as well as landowners to reduce the number of elk in the state. The animals’ population has steadily grown as they have expanded eastward from what was once their Western Montana mountain stronghold to re-establish a presence in prairie terrain where they hadn’t lived in decades.

This year’s surveys estimate the elk population in Montana at more than 163,000. That’s more elk than the entire population of Billings, the state’s largest city, which is estimated at 109,000. That compares to an estimated elk population of 136,000 in 2008, or roughly a 20 percent increase in eight years.

With hunting the main means of controlling elk populations FWP has to contend with what’s been a reduction in the number of hunters statewide accompanied by more landowners denying public hunter access to elk herds.

With a closer tracking of harvest trends FWP is building a database that it could use to show legislators and landowners in finer detail what is happening on the landscape. With elk shoulder seasons the agency should be able to demonstrate whether allowing public hunting access to private lands is capable of reducing elk populations.

“It will be interesting how that body of data grows,” Kujala said. “Are harvest prescriptions being met (in shoulder hunt areas)?

“The harvest is up. On the surface that is a good thing, but does it represent an interruption of those growth trends?”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.