Bull elk controversy

Elk that migrate out of Yellowstone National Park into Montana are at the center of a debate between Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and Gardiner-area outfitters.

CASEY RIFFE/Gazette Staff

A proposal to limit elk hunting to 75 people in a district north of Yellowstone National Park next year has riled outfitters and some hunters in the area who are rallying to oppose the measure.

“This will put us out of business,” read an advertisement in the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce’s Nov. 11 newsletter that urged people to contact members of the Fish and Wildlife Commission and oppose the measure. “All of the money we spend on gas, food, wages — and our hunters spend on motels, bars, restaurants and gifts — will be lost to Gardiner.”

The outfitters have created a Facebook page to rally support.

In a report the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association prepared challenging Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' proposal, MOGA said the change could result in a $1.9 million hit to the economy of the area.

Yet Mac Minard, executive director of association, said the economy isn't his main concern.

“We’re looking at this through the lens of conservation and opportunity,” he said.

FWP will hold an informational meeting on its proposal at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Pioneer Lodge, 1515 W. Park, in Livingston.

The proposal

FWP’s wildlife biologist in Livingston, Karen Loveless, has proposed the reduction in hunting. Since 2012, elk hunting in Hunting District 313 near Gardiner has been limited to brow tine bull elk in order to protect cow elk so they could increase the elk population. Permits to hunt those bulls must come through a drawing. The drawing issues unlimited permits for those hunters who make the district their first choice on their permit application. In 2015 about 1,500 permits were issued. Last year, it was estimated about 315 bulls were shot. 

Under FWP’s new proposal, those unlimited permits would drop to only 75 next season. The change is meant to quickly increase — possibly in two years — the number of mature bulls in what’s called the Northern Range herd. The herd makes annual fall migrations out of Yellowstone’s Northern Range into the Gardiner Basin.

According to FWP’s annual elk counts, the number of adult bulls per 100 cows counted in Montana fell to 2.7 this past winter. The ideal number is 10 per 100 cows. The last time the count for the herd was above 10 bulls per 100 cows was in 2002.

According to Loveless’ calculations, raising the permit reduction from 75 to 150 would mean it would take about five years for the bull numbers to recover, instead of two. The intent is to keep the limited draw only until the bull population rebounds, she said.

“It’s high profile in the state, nationally and in the world,” said John Vore, FWP’s Game Management Bureau chief. “These are Yellowstone elk. If we’re seeing the things we’re seeing, it’s time to take some steps to mediate that.”

The challenge

Minard sees the situation differently. He and outfitter Rob Arnaud, president of MOGA and a former wildlife manager for Ted Turner, based their calculations not just on the elk that migrate into Montana, but the entire Northern Range herd. Using those numbers, they found that bull-to-cow ratios weren’t too low and that there has been a slow uptick in the herd’s population.

“What we found is that the Montana section does not predict very accurately the herd in total,” Minard said.

There’s still a declining trend in the number of bulls, he said, but not as harsh as the Montana figures alone would suggest.

“There’s nothing here that portends a catastrophic collapse of this herd,” Minard said. “And in fact it’s trending back.”

Outfitters also point to the fact that surveys can miss elk, that counts are done after bulls have lost their antlers and that the falling numbers could be because of changes in how the elk are migrating out of the park.

“No count is perfect,” said Dan Vermillion, a Fish and Wildlife commissioner from Livingston. “But what the department does is focus on the same basic methodology every year, and the trend in 313 is definitely concerning.”

Loveless has discussed her calculations with Minard and seen his calculations.

“Basically, they’re making the case that we’re not looking at the big picture data, and that’s unfounded,” she said.

But she said FWP has to concentrate on the migratory population that enters Montana because that’s what the department has management control over. And she said that even looking at MOGA’s data there is a declining trend in bull numbers.

“So even by their standards we have a declining trend,” Loveless said.

Still to come

The Fish and Wildlife Commission will have the next say on the issue. The proposal will come before the commission at its Dec. 10 meeting. Following the commission’s decision, the proposal will be one of many for future hunting seasons that the public can comment on before the commission makes a final decision in February.

MOGA’s counterproposal to FWP’s is to limit hunting in HD 313 to six-point bulls only and limiting those who successfully draw a permit for the area to only hunt there.

Vermillion said he has taken many calls about the Gardiner elk hunting proposal, both in favor and against the idea.

“I don’t know where I’m going to come down,” he said. “I do understand that if we go to 75 permits, that’s a significant impact. But the overarching concern is to make sure the herd is managed correctly and that there are enough elk around in the future for people to hunt.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.