MISSOULA — For some hunters, it’s never too early to start thinking about next season.
In the case of the dozen dedicated outdoors men and women who came to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 2 open house earlier this week, 2014 needs consideration. And the roundtable discussion brought up a thick notebook worth of ideas for biologists, legislators and the FWP Commission to ponder.
“This is your chance to get input in ahead of new season proposals,” Region 2 wildlife manager Mike Thompson said at the beginning of the three-hour discussion. It was also a chance to air out concerns about Montana’s wildlife populations, its hunting heritage, and what crucial choices await that could affect both.
“What makes Montana special is the fact we have made some hard decisions,” Backcountry Hunters and Anglers board member Jock Conyngham told the group. “And we continue to push for quality in making those choices. If we let everybody have whatever they want, we aren’t going to have much here.”
The hard choices many people at the meeting sounded willing to consider were reductions in the length and opportunities of Montana’s big-game hunting seasons. As one speaker put it, “We hunters need to slash our seasons to help the animals out.”
Montana currently allows 42 days for archery hunting and 37 days for rifle hunting general seasons. Over the past decade, populations of whitetail and mule deer and elk have dropped significantly in Region 2 and other parts of the state.
While western Montana has been particularly affected by large numbers of wolves, bears and mountain lions, many areas in the central and eastern parts of the state have suffered from disease outbreaks or weather-related die-offs.
A variety of possible changes could shorten the season. Some meeting participants supported ending Montana’s general season before Nov. 15 as many other Rocky Mountain states do. That would remove hunters from the field before the deer rut begins. Others suggested reducing tag numbers, especially for elk, across most of western Montana where predators appear to be out of balance.
Thompson said those ideas are gaining currency, but with a risk.
“How does this pan out with new hunter recruitment?” he asked. “If restrictions are ineffective and we keep hunters home, we can unravel hunting in western Montana.”
Statistics back up the concern. In 2008, before FWP greatly reduced or eliminated doe tags for the Blackfoot and Clearwater river drainages northeast of Missoula, 11,000 hunters passed through the Bonner check station. Last year, the total was down to 6,300.
The 2013 Legislature liberalized hunting rules for wolves, allowing hunters to kill up to five wolves and use previously banned electronic calls. But wolves have proved difficult prey for all but the most dedicated human hunters.
FWP has also expanded its quotas and seasons for mountain lion and bear hunting. While those have shown some success, several speakers noted that because few people want to eat bear or lion, the popularity of hunting those animals isn’t likely to grow.
“Sometimes I start to think we need to really put our heads toward something like zero-based budgeting,” Thompson said. “When you look at the situation, maybe we should think what can we do from zero, instead of looking back to what we did in the 1980s and talking about what we can cut back.”
Beyond the big overall challenge, participants had many other suggestions. They included:
Banning the use of aerial drone aircraft for animal scouting. As the unmanned aircraft get more powerful and sophisticated cameras get lighter and less expensive, the potential for poachers to abuse them grows greater. Montana already restricts the use of regular aircraft for assisting hunting, and speakers said drones should be included in the same rule.
Release block management maps and publications before Aug. 15, which is the start of antelope season. Although antelope hunters are a small fraction of the overall big-game crowd, they get no advance warning what places might be available to hunt before their opening day.
Educate muzzleloaders and shotgun big-game hunters on the requirement to wear hunter-orange clothing during late-season deer hunting when bowhunters are also active. Confusion over a rule allowing wolf hunters to skip orange clothing was causing unnecessary risks for deer hunters, according to Montana Bowhunters Association regional member Marlon Clapham.
Consider providing single either-sex elk permits in areas where elk populations are recovering, instead of the current bull tag plus an over-the-counter cow tag. The move would still allow for good hunting opportunities without encouraging people to take two animals, Potomac resident Scott Davis suggested.
Continue trying to resolve the “corner-crossing” issue where public land surrounded by checkerboarded private property is off limits because people can’t legally cross from one square to another on the diagonal. The problem has grown legally to the point where FWP wardens are now instructed to prohibit entry to landlocked public parcels by aircraft, because some courts have found the boundary extends into the airspace. Efforts to change these rules in the last Legislature were unsuccessful.
Consider allowing baiting for black bears in areas where such techniques wouldn’t interfere with grizzly bears.
Consider transplanting elk into areas where their numbers have crashed (Thompson noted several problems with this, including the risk of spreading chronic wasting disease and the waste of effort moving ungulates into an area where predators aren’t yet in balance).
Several speakers supported reducing the archery season to four weeks and the rifle season to three weeks, at least until big game populations grow stronger. They also proposed making the two seasons either/or, where someone who hunts with one weapon foregoes the other season.
Similar meetings are taking place throughout Montana in the next few weeks. The general public can also submit suggestions and comments directly to FWP for 2014 season changes. Proposals that emerge for the 2014 and 2015 hunting seasons will be presented to the FWP Commission in December, followed by public comment opportunity in January 2014. The commission will adopt final rules in February.
To submit comments online go to fwp.mt.gov, then click “Hunting.” The comment deadline is 5 p.m. on Sept. 6.