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Elk shoulder seasons

The Fish and Wildlife Commission approved on Thursday rules that will guide elk hunts that would be designed to reduce overpopulations.

Despite concerns expressed by hunters and skepticism about whether the changes would actually work, the Fish and Wildlife Commission approved rules on Thursday that will guide elk hunts before and after Montana’s general archery and rifle seasons.

“It all comes back to, if we don’t do something the Legislature will,” said commission chairman Dan Vermillion of Livingston.

Under the so-called “shoulder season” guidelines, hunting could start as early as August in approved areas, with a late season extending until February as an attempt to reduce elk populations where they are over management objectives.

“The goal is to add to the general season elk harvest, not replace it,” said Quentin Kujala, FWP’s wildlife management section chief who was in charge of developing the proposal.

After approval of the measure, the commission also agreed to allow late hunts using the newly adopted rules this winter on private lands in certain districts to provide FWP with information on how the so-called “shoulder hunts” will work in practice. The hunts would be allowed this season only and will go out to the public for comment.

After two previous hearings and numerous public comments, FWP had modified its original proposal. Requiring bull elk to be hunted in the shoulder seasons was changed to being an option in late hunts. No bull elk hunting would be allowed in early shoulder season hunts. Any early shoulder season would be focused on private land to avoid conflicts with bowhunters who start hunting about the same time. Public lands could be included as an option in the late seasons.

The rules would be applied only to certain hunting districts proposed by the department during the season-setting process every two years. Any proposed shoulder season would include a sunset date, although it could be ended sooner. Where a shoulder season fails to reduce elk populations to objective an antlerless-only season could be enacted by the commission that would apply to both archers and rifle hunters during the general season.

Where shoulder season hunts are held, FWP would collect information on harvest rates and make them public to ensure the process is transparent. Any landowner who only made use of the shoulder seasons to remove elk, and did not allow public access during the general season, would not qualify for so-called damage hunts.

“We all want to help that landowner who is helping the department and the sportsmen,” Vermillion said.

That’s the situation for a coalition of landowners and sportsmen called the Devil’s Kitchen Working Group, north of Helena. Landowner Chase Hibbard said despite damage hunts and allowing controlled public access that accounted for 5,500 public hunter days, the elk population has continued to grow to 1,600 animals over objective.

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“This is something we believe will give us additional tools to get a handle on this fast-growing population,” Hibbard said.

Others said the department is dodging the real issue — harboring of elk, often by landowners who lease their land to outfitters for commercial hunts.

“The real culprit is the harboring of elk on these ranches that don’t want hunters on their place, even though they’re causing problems for their neighbors,” said Steve Schindler, of the Traditional Bowhunters of Montana. “So the harboring issue is the driving force behind this.”

Vermillion agreed and said the department has avoided the issue of harboring and standing up for access to public lands because it’s so politically charged and would be seen as an attack on private property rights.

One of the few proponents of the measure as written was Jay Bodner of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. He said his group’s members are mostly in support of the shoulder seasons.

Vermillion said he went back to review minutes from the 2006 commission’s decision when it was decided to drop late cow elk hunts in favor of a general five week rifle season. Based on the comments made then, he said the same concerns exist today about harboring elk on private land where public hunting is limited or not allowed.

Former commissioner Shane Colton, who was on the board when that decision was made, testified that he thought the commission would be making a mistake to approve the shoulder seasons.

“My concern is that we’re headed back to an old solution that didn’t solve the problem,” he said.

Vermillion and Commissioner Matt Tourtlotte, of Billings, both said they believed the shoulder seasons would do little to change the existing problems but they are required to try given the pressure being exerted on Fish, Wildlife and Parks by some members of the Legislature.

“We need to respond to legislative pressure and do something,” Vermillion said.

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