Montana’s Elk Shoulder Seasons Draw Controversy

Anaconda and Skyline Sportsmen clubs gather for a picnic and to talk about elk.

There’s been a feeling of autumn in the air this past week or so, with cool nights and chilly mornings. More than a few people are looking around the corner to September when hunting seasons begin. Of course, in Montana, hunting means elk for many, and in some areas of Montana, elk hunting started on August 15 when “shoulder” seasons began.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks established shoulder season elk hunting in 2015 in an effort to reduce elk populations in areas where there were excess numbers of elk on private lands. When those shoulder seasons began, the plan was to do a thorough review of the program after three years.

Last week, at a joint meeting of the Skyline Sportsmen and Anaconda Sportsmen clubs at Stodden Park in Butte, Nick Gevock, representing the Montana Wildlife Federation, presided over an extended discussion of the program. This was one of a number of such meetings with sportsmen’s clubs across Montana. Gevock said that he’d be presenting a summary of these meetings to the August 15 meeting of the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Gevock began the discussion with the Federation’s view of shoulder seasons, noting that some hunting districts now have elk populations below FWP objectives, yet FWP still plans to proceed with shoulder seasons. The Federation is also concerned with the ethics of such long hunting seasons targeting cow elk as early as mid-August, when cows are still raising calves, and in February, when pregnant cows are already stressed by winter.

Chris Marchion of Anaconda asserted that many Region 2 districts with shoulder seasons have populations below objectives and that calf populations are as low as 9 per 100 elk. He charged that, “The Department is making policy contary to biology.”

Julie Golia, a wildlife biologist stationed in Anaconda responded that elk move around a great deal and that winter aerial surveys don’t necessarily reflect where elk are during the normal hunting season. She added that many ranchers continue to have problems, with major losses of hay due to elk.

Key to elk problems is that elk sense where landowners don’t allow public hunting during the regular hunting season, and congregate there in large numbers. Some ranchers lease hunting rights to outfitters or allow fee hunting for trophy bull elk.

A new issue that complicates the problem of elk congregating on protected private lands is chronic wasting disease. We now know that CWD has been found in south central and north central areas, and most recently in the Libby area in the far western part of Montana. If CWD gets established that raises the threat of the disease spreading to domestic livestock. As one person commented, “We need buy-in from the ag community,” in solving the crowding issues.

A complicating factor is that the 2019 Legislature passed a resolution urging the Commission to continue shoulder seasons plus extend the seasons to public lands as well as private lands. While that was just a resolution, one person commented that it raises the possibility of a worst case scenario, of, after 2020, of a Republican governor as well as a Republican Legislature passing a new law mandating shoulder seasons, substantially taking FWP out of elk management.

Regarding the ethics of shoulder seasons, Wayne Hadley, a retired fisheries biologist, said the early and late seasons give ammunition to people, both in and out of Montana, who already disapprove of hunting. “We’re screwing with motherhood and the flag by shooting mothers with calves.”

Nick Gevock, Conservation Director, Montana Wildlife Federation.

In wrap-up remarks, Nick Gevock said that, after nearing completion of sportsmen club meetings around the state, it seems clear that the vast majority of attendees oppose shoulder seasons as a primary management tool. He also said that there is wide opposition to any plan to extend shoulder seasons to public land, adding, “That’s where we want the elk.”

The Fish & Wildlife Commission will be accepting comments until their next meeting on October 17.

Finally, I’ll just mention that something I’ve learned over the years is that if you want to get Montanans stirred up, just talk about elk management.

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