Heavy snow falling in the early evening, a week ago, didn’t discourage attendance at a public meeting to discuss changes in hunting season regulations for the next two hunting seasons. It was standing room only at the Butte Brewing Company conference rooms as Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks people outlined plans for the coming seasons.
Butte-based wildlife biologist Vanna Boccadori and Dean Waltee, a Sheridan-based biologist, were the main presenters. Craig Fager, a Dillon-based biologist, was noticeably absent for this round of meetings, as he retired in 2019 after a long career with the department.
Not surprisingly, elk regulations draw the most discussion, and the most passionate discussion among most of the attendees, many of whom were Skyline Sportsmen leaders and members.
Also, not surprisingly, elk shoulder seasons drew extensive discussion.
Shoulder seasons, meaning early and late seasons for cow elk on private lands have been tried, now, for several years, following a legislative mandate to reduce elk populations in hunting districts that had large numbers of elk exceeding department management goals.
The big conundrum in elk management is that elk learn where hunters are and aren’t, and head for private land where hunter access is limited. This is further complicated by many large ranches getting leased by outfitters, or ranchers, themselves, operating fee hunting operations. Audience members piped in with dollar figures for trophy bull elk ranging from $5,000 to $15,000.
While it isn’t clear whether shoulder seasons have been successful in reducing elk numbers, it was abundantly clear, from a show of hands, that people attending the meeting oppose shoulder seasons.
The 2019 Montana Legislature passed a bill that would allow some hunters to purchase a 3rd elk license to be used in districts with an excess elk population. By another show of hands, attendees expressed disapproval of any hunter being able to harvest three elk in a season.
Another strategy to reduce elk numbers could be to offer more Elk B (antlerless) licenses. Dean Waltee was recommending the creation of 500 B licenses for District 333, for hunts on private land. An audience member asked if the district could afford a harvest of 500 cow elk. Waltee responded that he’d best his last dollar that it wouldn’t happen. A more likely estimate is that 500 B tag holders would harvest around 60 to 65 elk.
Boccadori mentioned that the Region 3 elk plan is now 15 years old, and it is now under study and a new plan will be drawn up in the next two years.
There was also extended discussion about mule deer management, and a long decline in mule deer numbers since a high point in the 1960s. Some people were suggesting 4-point or better restrictions on mule deer bucks. The biologists responded that these restrictions have been tried in some areas but found unsatisfactory. There was wastage of deer that some hunters shot and left because they had gotten an undersized deer. At the other end of the spectrum, some bucks were dying of old age.
There were small changes proposed for other game species such as moose, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. In response to a question as to a reduction in goat licenses affecting license revenues, Boccadori icily responded, “We do not manage wildlife to maximize license dollars.”
After the meeting I talked with biologist Dean Waltee about the recent discovery of chronic wasting disease among whitetail deer in the Sheridan area. He said there is a lot of concern around the community and he has had many discussions with area landowners who are anxious to work with FWP to reduce deer numbers. An underlying problem is figuring how many hunters can be on the land without safety issues. One possibility is to lengthen the hunting season to increase harvest.
The full listing of statewide Department proposals is available at the FWP website, and the comment period is now extended to 5 p.m. on January 27.
The Montana hunting seasons are now mostly over, but the seasons for planning, discussion and arguing about wildlife management never end.