If you were to sum up public meetings held by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks this month, it could be, in Butte at least, in two words: Elk and Wolves.
I attended the meeting held in Butte on January 11, a meeting packed by local big game hunting enthusiasts interested in having a voice in Montana’s hunting regulations. There were around 60 people in the audience, along with area wildlife biologists, game wardens and FWP managers.
Along with fine-tuning of harvest quotas in area hunting districts, there is an immediate change in the special permit application process. Specifically, people interested in applying for special bull/either sex elk and buck deer permits, the deadline application is March 15. These special permits are for special management units. An example would be the Elkhorn Mountains area between Boulder and Helena, which is managed for trophy bull elk, and special permits are required for the area.
People can file applications online or by mail right now, though the FWP website suggests people should wait until after February 15, when final quotas for 2012 will be set.
The application deadline for Deer B, Elk B and antelope licenses will still be on June 1. Applications for moose, sheep, goat and bison licenses will still be May 1.
The last few years there has been a youth deer-hunting season prior to the general big game season. The two-day season is timed to coincide with the annual Montana Education Association convention, when public schools are closed. In 2013, that two-day season will overlap the end of the archery season, instead of just before the general big game season. Archery hunters will be required to wear blaze orange during the youth season in 2013.
During the discussions on upcoming elk and deer seasons in southwest Montana, there was strong sentiment among attendees that no hunters should be able to qualify for both an antlered elk and antlerless elk, as has been possible in some hunting districts in recent seasons.
There was also discussion of mule deer hunting regulations. Mule deer populations, which normally go in cycles, are currently at the lower end of the cycle. While biologist Craig Fager noted there was excellent fawn survival in 2011, there was a strong sentiment among attendees that there should be no antlerless mule deer hunting until populations improve.
A thorny elk issue was discussed, though nobody had a solution. The problem that occasionally comes up is elk taking refuge on private land during hunting seasons, often with ranchers offering trophy fee hunts. After the hunting season is over the landowners then run the elk off back to public land. FWP personnel agreed that it’s a thorny problem without obvious solutions.
On the subject of thorny problems, there was heated discussion of large predators and their impact on deer and elk populations. Jack Atcheson, a Butte resident and the veteran of some 65 Montana hunting seasons, talked at length about the impact of black bears, mountain lions and wolves on big game populations.
Another veteran hunter, Jack Jones of Butte, echoed Atcheson’s comments. He all but accused FWP wildlife managers and biologists of incompetence in wildlife management, saying that with current trends, Montana hunting seasons would end up as just “recreational hunts.”
FWP Regional Director Pat Flowers responded, strongly, to the criticisms, noting that the State of Montana was not a party to wolf re-introduction in the first place, and that with just a second wolf hunting season still under way, wolf management was still a work in progress. He also said that if people wanted to criticize wildlife managers, he’d accept that criticism, but submitted that the department’s wildlife biologists are the “best in the world.”
This is stating the obvious, but it is clear that the role of large predators, particularly wolves, will continue to be a topic of disagreement and controversy for years to come.
While some people advocate that management of wolves should mean extirpation again, that’s not going to happen, and we’d better continue seeking that elusive balance of both healthy predator and big game populations.