WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — This mountain burg of fewer than than 1,000 people, once best known for its natural hot springs and summer music festival, has gained modest national and regional fame over the past three weeks thanks to the nearly 4,000 elk that inhabit the surrounding mountains.

“We’re getting calls from Washington, Texas, California and North Dakota, and those are just the hunters that I’ve talked to,” said Bruce Auchly, regional information officer for Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Great Falls. “Anyone with an A tag who did not get an elk, or who has a B tag, are focused on four hunting districts.”

Auchly estimated that adds up to thousands of curious folks interested in Montana’s extended cow elk season. The so-called elk shoulder season began Nov. 30 and runs to Feb. 15 on private, state and Bureau of Land Management property in Hunting Districts 445, 446, 449 and 452. All are located south of Great Falls and east of Helena in the Big Belt, Little Belt and Castle mountains. Three of those districts converge near White Sulphur Springs, which has attracted the most hunter attention.

Calls galore

Not satisfied with the established routes of gaining access, some hunters have even placed ads on Craigslist, an online classified ad website. One ad from Laurel was from “2 elder gentle men who are disabled” who were seeking a place to hunt. Others touted their religious faith or were parents seeking an opportunity for a child.

“The interest is amazing,” Auchly said.

Melody Forkin, at the Spa Hot Springs Motel & Clinic in White Sulphur Springs, said the late hunt has kept the motel filled during what’s traditionally a slower time of the year. One truck parked at the hotel with Wolf Point license plates had a full-size dead cow elk in the back. Wolf Point is about six hours and 370 miles northeast of White Sulphur.

Aarron McGuire, FWP’s hunt coordinator in White Sulphur, is tasked with matching hunters to area landowners looking to rid their property of elk. His daily phone volume can range from 600 to 700 calls a day. Out of those, McGuire said only about 100 a day actually get through and talk to him.

“A lot of people are just inquiring,” McGuire said, and won’t actually make the trip.

One of the reasons for the high volume of calls is that many hunters are phoning more than once just to get through to McGuire, since he’s constantly on the phone fielding those inquiries.

“Have some patience,” Auchly advised hunters. “We’re trying to help people who have never been there, and landowners who don’t want to be overrun.”

Tough hunting

FWP has stressed to callers that these are not “haystack hunts” where elk are grouped up in an open area and a kill is nearly guaranteed. The private lands and one Block Management Area are walk-in only. Off-road travel or retrieval in a vehicle is not allowed. That means dragging or backpacking out in pieces an animal that can weigh 500 pounds.

“Whenever we explain to them that this is real hunting in winter conditions, that makes some of them think twice,” said Ethan Lula, an FWP wildlife biologist in White Sulphur Springs. “A lot of guys asked, ‘Has the snow pushed the elk down to the bottom?’ It has, but the snow is knee deep for hunters, too.”

Lula was lucky enough to shoot a cow elk during the season on the south end of the Castle Mountains by going through McGuire, just like everyone else, to gain access to private land. He pulled the halved cow elk out 2.5 miles on a sled. That’s something not all hunters are willing to do.

“Some fellows go out and glass in the morning, then decide it isn’t worth the work,” Lula said, referring to hunters using spotting scopes and binoculars to scan the hillsides for elk. “We can send them to the property but we can’t make them walk if they don’t want to.”

FWP and elk

Fish, Wildlife and Parks has committed additional services to make this trial run of the elk shoulder season a success. Other wardens are helping patrol on weekends. Lula is trying to keep track of where elk are located to advise McGuire so he can direct hunters to an area with elk.

The effort is driven by complaints from landowners about too many elk raiding haystacks, grazing in fields and tearing up fences. Near White Sulphur Springs, Lula said Hunting District 446 — which encompasses the east side of the Big Belt Mountains — has about 2,148 elk. The department’s population objective for the area is 950 or a range between 446 and 1,140. In the Castle Mountains east of White Sulphur, Lula counted 1,766 elk this past spring. The objective is 600 elk with a range between 480 to 720.

Many of the elk are difficult to kill during the regular hunting seasons because of a lack of public access to private land. But elk are also a difficult animal to kill, even with adequate access.

Next year, FWP has proposed expanding the extended seasons to 44 hunting districts scattered around the state where elk have exceeded population objectives. A decision on those proposals will be made by the Fish and Wildlife Commission in February. Meetings are being scheduled around the state next month to provide hunters a chance to hear about and comment on these and other proposed hunting regulation changes.

If passed, the new elk shoulder seasons would also allow elk hunting earlier in some of those districts — starting in August in some areas and continuing into February. Some hunters feel that’s too long of a season, pressuring cow elk just after they’ve weaned calves in the summer, and when they are pregnant in the winter.

Next year

One thing is for sure: spreading out the pressure to other districts should help lessen the impact on places like White Sulphur Springs that participate in any future shoulder season hunts, Auchly said.

“Elk hunting is popular, a religion to some,” he said.

For those looking to practice their “religion” this winter, White Sulphur Springs has become the temple of choice. With plenty of time left in the season, Auchly, McGuire and other FWP personnel are urging hunters to come during the week when pressure is lower and during January when elk could be more accessible.

Auchly cautioned those hunters to follow the rules and be respectful of landowners.

“It’s not a free-for-all,” he said.

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.