Elk seasons

Elk shoulder seasons would be created in 43 hunting districts, or portions thereof, under Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ proposals that go to the Fish and Wildlife Commission on Thursday.

David McCumber/For The Gazette

HELENA — During a meeting that went hours past schedule due to several contentious topics, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission reluctantly signed off Thursday on 43 antlerless elk shoulder seasons focused primarily on private lands. 

“As distasteful as I find it, I’m willing to support it,” said Commission Chairman Dan Vermillion of Livingston. “I find no joy but only sadness that we have to be hunting elk into February.”

Commissioners made several adjustments to shoulder season dates — over and above Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks pulling nearly all shoulder seasons that overlapped with existing archery seasons.

Vermillion was not alone in his reluctance about hunting elk already stressed by the deep winter season and pregnancies with the year’s crop of calves.

“I’m not sure hunting seasons that go that late follow the principles of fair chase,” said Commissioner Matthew Tourtlotte of Billings, adding that he believed the hunts should be rolled out slower and as more information becomes available.

“The concept of hunting elk in January and February — I find it distasteful,” said Commissioner Gary Wolfe of Missoula. “Hopefully we’ll not have to do this for too many more years and we can get back to more traditional elk hunting seasons.”

In response to the late season concerns, Vermillion and Tourtlotte scaled back shoulder seasons to end Jan. 1 in Regions 3 and 5, although the Feb. 15 date remains for Region 2 and most Region 4 districts.

FWP staff noted that the agency understood the concerns, but stressed that it is under a mandate to manage elk to population objectives and traditional seasons plus management or damage hunts were simply not meeting that requirement. Montana is more than 29,000 elk over objective and under pressure from landowners, lawmakers and the governor’s office to act, said FWP Game Management Bureau Chief John Vore.

“The season length isn’t something the department likes to do, but we understand we’re mandated under law to manage to objectives,” he said. “As distasteful as we find it, we do need to get elk populations to objective.”

Vore emphasized the “performance” criteria supporting shoulder seasons including required substantial harvest of elk during the general season. FWP believes the criteria will address public hunter concerns that the hunt allows outfitters to harvest bulls for paying clients while the public only gets access to cows, he said.

The longer officials wait to address districts far above objectives, the more difficult it will be to bring those populations down, said Region 2 Wildlife Manager Mike Thompson. The hunts are designed to meet that goal quickly, he said.

Landowner interest varied widely across the state.

FWP dropped one proposed shoulder season after a group of Broadwater County landowners objected. Landowners and sportsmen also could not find enough support to sustain shoulder seasons in Hunting Districts 410 and 417 in central Montana.

But where landowners and FWP came together during this winter’s pilot seasons in a handful of districts, the response has been positive, said White Sulphur Springs area rancher Bill Galt, who also praised the economic benefit to the area.

“It was not without its problems, but overall it was a huge success,” he said, both in terms of harvest and redistribution of elk. “I can’t applaud the department enough.”

Avon area rancher Matt Gravely spoke to the need for the seasons in his district and said he was willing to take on the extra burden of dealing with hunters for the additional time.

“Yes, we are prepared, and we welcome it,” he said.

Montana Wildlife Federation Conservation Director Nick Gevock said that he was encouraged by the general sentiment to move elk onto public lands and refocusing long-term on the general hunting season as the chief management tool.

The commission approved the 43 shoulder seasons requested by FWP with several changes from tentative proposals. The preliminary list of approved districts and applicable licenses is available at http://fwp.mt.gov/doingBusiness/insideFwp/commission/meetings/agenda.html?coversheet&topicId=36355549; however, several shoulder season dates were changed by the commission.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 or tom.kuglin@helenair.com