Hunting Enthusiasts Pack Meeting

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.

Last Call for Montana’s Hunting Season

Last Call came last Friday.

Since the beginning of September, I’ve been planning my schedule around one major imperative: the hunting season.

Oh, there have been other things, such as playing in the Symphony, going to meetings, publishing a book and then trying to sell it, trips to see family, etc. Still, even when there were other things going on, I was still studying the calendar, looking at weather reports, and conspiring with my wife, all with the goal of getting out of town and taking a hike, usually with a shotgun in hand and Flicka at my side, in search of a feathered or furred critter of one kind or another.

We’ve taken walks over mountaintops, across aspen thickets, through creek bottoms, wheat and barley fields, prairies, mountain meadows and wetlands.

I’ve made good shots, missed some easy shots and had lots of what-if moments, such as what if I’d been paying more attention to that whitetail buck sneaking across the meadow, or what if I’d approached that spring creek at a different angle, so the ducks wouldn’t have spooked and flushed out of range.

There was a day on the North Dakota prairies when my son, Kevin, and I both shot pockets-full of shotgun shells without getting a single pheasant. Then there was another day when I got a limit of three pheasants with three shots in just half an hour—with about ten minutes of that half hour spent chatting with the landowner.

There have been uncomfortably warm days and bitterly cold days, especially that one subzero day I spent sitting on a stump waiting for deer to come along. There have been sunny days, windy days, snowy days, and a strange day at the end of December when I was drenched in a rainstorm.

The main thing is that after four and a half months there were a lot of days, some 29 altogether, if I counted correctly.

Some of those days I came home with game and there were other days when all I got was fresh air and exercise along with some fresh memories. And now that the hunting season is finally over I consider myself fortunate to have had another hunting season.

My wife and I went to a 50-year college class reunion last summer and a bittersweet part of these reunions is to note the passing of some more of our classmates. In the mail this past week was an advance notice of a 55-year high school class reunion to happen this summer, also noting the deaths of another six classmates in the last few years.

My joints are creaky at times, but they’re still original equipment and functioning pretty much the way they’re supposed to, as are my heart and lungs. I may not be as adventurous in my outings as I might have been years ago but getting out there is as important as ever.

It’s a privilege to live in a part of the country where there are abundant opportunities to hunt a variety of game. Granted, those opportunities are sometimes in a state of flux. Still with a mix of public lands as well as farms and ranches where I enjoy hunting privileges, it’s perfectly feasible to be able to hunt for many varieties of furred and feathered game over a long hunting season, including the possibilities of combining early autumn outings with some flyfishing on a trout stream, or harvesting wild mushrooms and chokecherries.

We don’t have everything in Montana. I occasionally envy a friend in Indiana who centers his autumns around bobwhite quail. We don’t have quail in Montana but we make up for it in so many other ways.

In fact, it is still possible, with luck and money, to hunt just about everything that Lewis & Clark hunted when they passed through Montana over 200 years ago. That’s not too shabby, and I have friends in other states that look at our opportunities with envy.

So, hunting season is over and I’m sorry to see it end. Still, I’m grateful and I’m already looking forward to September.

Montana’s big game season comes to a close

The first rays of sunrise were shining on distant mountain peaks, holding the promise of some solar energy to warm things up a little. About then I would have really appreciated some of that solar energy. It was a bone-chilling 8 below zero when my hunting partner for the day, Nick Gevock, and I left the truck to walk up a wooded hillside in search of a good spot to wait for a white-tailed deer to show up.

I found stumps to sit on where I could look over a brushy meadow and settled in to wait, while Nick walked further to set up on another spot.

Stump sitting in sub-zero weather has several requirements. First of all, you need a pad so you’re not sitting directly on a damp, frozen stump. Second, you need enough patience to stay on stand, even when common sense tells you to go back to the truck and turn the heater on high.

It’s not bad at first, but the cold gradually begins to penetrate the layers of warm clothing.

I glance around the meadow and suddenly a whitetail buck materializes in front of me. It’s just 50 yards away and looking directly at me. I try to be motionless and as long as I’m perfectly still he can’t figure out just what that new object in the forest is. Finally, I decide I’d better raise my rifle. The deer decides that whatever I am I’m up to no good. Before I can get my rifle in any kind of business position the deer is gone.

And as the deer disappeared off into the forest, so did my best chance to put venison in the freezer. No other deer showed in that meadow this morning, even when the sun finally came up high enough to add a little warmth to the Christmas card scene of fluffy, white snow and blue skies. Nick rejoined me in late morning, reporting that five cow elk had spent the morning browsing about 25 yards from him. He’d gotten an elk the week before, however, so aside from the thrill, it was an empty morning.

We spent the afternoon on another hillside, with meadows full of deer trails through the snow. It had warmed up to +8˚ by then and with the sun shining it felt relatively comfortable. As the afternoon slowly waned, overcast moved in and chill began to take over. At sunset, I felt chilled to the bone, and finally stumbled back to the road through the twilight, not having seen any deer all afternoon.

A couple days later I had an afternoon free before other commitments would take over the weekend. I asked Flicka, my Labrador retriever, about hunting and she enthusiastically endorsed looking for pheasants. We put up a couple hen pheasants in a couple brushy river bottoms, plus one rooster that flushed out of range. In one brush patch I spotted a couple deer just a few yards away and I made a resolution that I should start carrying slug loads in my pocket for just these kinds of opportunities.

A couple days later we were on the road to spend Thanksgiving with our daughter in California. My deer season was over and I had somehow frittered away that long five-week big game hunting season without anything to show for it.

Hunting seasons are starting to wind down. The deer and elk season closed on November 27. The mountain grouse season will close on December 15.

Still there are a lot of hunting opportunities in coming weeks. Except for mountain grouse and sage grouse, upland bird hunting continues through New Year’s Day, and waterfowl seasons for ducks and geese continue through January 13 in the Pacific Flyway areas of Montana.

As of a week ago, the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission was still taking comments on extending the wolf season through January

A winter wonderland for a November deer hunt

. The wolf harvest was at just 93 animals, far short of the goal of 222.

The big game hunting season may be over, but my plan for the next month is to go hunting.

Montana’s deer and elk season winding down.

Time goes fast when you’re having fun, as the saying goes.

A prime example is the big game hunting season. That long five-week season is now down to just a week and a half

According to reports from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the overall deer and elk harvest so far has been below average.

Mule deer populations, for reasons wildlife biologists keep trying to find, tend to have wide swings and this year the pendulum has swung to the low end. In addition, there are many areas where wildlife populations suffered because of the last winter season.

Still, there are hunting success stories, usually having a lot to do with being out in the hills at the right time.

For example, a neighbor of mine opened the big game season at a large group hunting camp on the upper Madison and reported, when he came home near the end of the first week of the season, that hunters in the group brought in a total of ten elk. Last year, the same group of people came home with just one elk and felt good about that.

In a mountainside conversation, an Anaconda resident told of helping his 14-year old son get a cow elk on the second day of the season. This was his son’s first elk so the whole family was pretty excited about it. Later that day, with one elk taken care of, he went back to the mountains and at sunset found a 4-point bull in his sights. It was almost midnight before he got back home, but he had that elk.

A Facebook friend posted a story of going to help a friend get a pronghorn antelope. They had a successful hunt and were packing the antelope up a steep, rocky hill. When they got to the top they saw some mule deer does, followed by a 5-point bull elk. He got off a quick shot at the bull and two hours later they were on the road for home with the elk as well as the pronghorn.

My neighbor’s son told me that he and a friend were out in the hills looking for deer. In mid-afternoon they had returned to the truck for a sandwich and were sitting in the truck when a bull elk walked by within shooting range. He not only got the 6×6 bull elk, but also dropped it close to the road. With a smile he added, “We kind of had the road blocked, so we had all sorts of help loading it.”

Something these successful elk hunters noted was, “a small bull,” in terms of antler size. “A small 6×6,” as my neighbor’s son put it. I replied, “There’s no such thing as a small 6×6.” He clarified, pointing out that the antlers were basically that of a young bull, what’s usually referred to as a “raghorn.” In normal years, a raghorn probably wouldn’t have a 6 point rack, but with this year’s exceptionally good forage conditions, these young bulls grew big sets of antlers, even if they didn’t have the mass of a mature bull.

That small 6×6 carcass was hanging in the garage and I will testify that even if the antlers weren’t huge, the elk’s body was plenty big and in excellent shape.

As of today, there are 11 days left in the general deer and elk season and many people maintain these last days of the big game season are the best. We’ve had several snowfalls and this past week we’ve had sub-zero weather, both factors that force elk to leave high mountain hideouts and head for lower elevations where it’s likely to be a bit warmer and where food is more easily available.

This week is also likely the peak of the breeding season for white-tailed deer, and a prime time to be looking for these usually elusive deer—when they’re more interested in procreation than safety.

So, if you still have elk and deer tags, this is the time to be out there and invite a critter home for a Christmas dinner.

Deer and Elk Seasons Begin in Montana

The wait is almost over for people who pay no attention to the early upland game, antelope and archery seasons. Yes, if hunting season means chasing deer and elk with a rifle, the hunting season begins this Saturday at dawn.

The Montana deer and elk firearms season opens Saturday, October 22 and runs through November 27. It’s the time of hunting camps, lost sleep, and shivering on frozen mountainsides before dawn in hopes of an elk coming your way to help fill the freezer.

New for 2011 is a youth deer hunt on October 20 and 21, an important prelude to the general season.  The regulations for the youth hunt are simple. Participants must be legally licensed hunters age 11 through 15. During these two days, youth hunters with a general or deer B license may take those deer species and sex otherwise available on the general or deer B license the first day of the general firearm season in the specific hunting district the youth is hunting. A non-hunting adult at least age 18 or older must accompany the youth hunter in the field. Shooting hours and all other usual regulations apply during this two-day deer season.

One of the usual regulations that some people, unfortunately, prefer to ignore is the requirement that big game hunters must wear a minimum of 400 square inches of hunter orange above the waist. Hunter orange requirements across the nation have done a lot to minimize tragic shooting accidents. I personally get irritated when I see so many magazines and TV hunting shows depicting hunters not wearing orange. Wearing an orange vest and cap may save your life, as well as help some other hunter avoid making a tragic mistake that could ruin their life as well.

On the blaze orange requirement, let’s note that archery hunters hunting during the general season must also observe the blaze orange rules. Personally, I think anyone who is out in the field during the firearms season is taking foolish chances if they’re not wearing orange, even if they’re not hunting.

The general firearms season also means that the firearms season for wolves will also be on. Wolf hunting may be controversial in some quarters, though I think many would agree that there are a lot of good reasons to have the season.

Certainly there’s no getting around the fact that wolves cause problems when they get around livestock. An Angus cow is certainly an easier animal for a pack of wolves to bring down than deer or elk.  The number of times we’ve read of government trappers eradicating problem wolves is a sure indicator. Wolves are smart animals and it seems to me that when they learn that they are being hunted, they’ll also figure out that staying away from people gives them a better chance to survive.

My daughter, Erin, lives in California and relayed that a friend of hers was aghast that Montana and Idaho are having wolf seasons again. She had the impression that wolves were going to be hunted right in Yellowstone National Park, which certainly isn’t the case.

As of a week ago, a total of 18 wolves, out of a quota of 220, had been killed during the early seasons, including 4 in hunting district 313/316, an area of high mountain country directly north of Yellowstone National Park. That completed the harvest quota for that hunting district. If you’re hoping to fill that wolf tag, it would be a good idea to regularly check the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website ( to make sure the harvest quota for a specific hunting district hasn’t been completed.

Another reminder is to be careful about property boundaries. If you’re hunting private land in Montana you are required to have permission to be hunting there. That also applies to crossing private land to access public land.

Above all, enjoy the season. People across the country envy the hunting opportunities we have in Montana. For many, their concept of the hunt of a lifetime is something we take for granted.

Montana’s Big Game Season Ends

Here I am with my deer. It’s not a trophy deer, but really good eating.

As usual, it’s one of those good news/bad news deals. The bad news is that the big game hunting season is over. The good news, or at least a bit of relief, is that the big game season is over.

The 2010 general big game hunting season pretty much ran to form, and so did the weather. Those two things usually go hand-in-hand. The season opened with some early winter weather, and then we had an extended period of mild weather, and then winter came back with a vengeance, with sub-zero temps and blizzard conditions during Thanksgiving week.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks reported outstanding hunting success in southwest Montana the next to last weekend of the season with large numbers of deer and elk coming through FWP game checking stations. The last weekend of hunting happened after my deadline for this issue of the Weekly, but for hunters able to escape Thanksgiving tables and football games long enough to get up in the high country and hunt, there were rewards.

Personally, I had a perfect big game hunting season. I left home at midday on a snowy and drizzly afternoon, spotted some white-tailed deer at 3 p.m. and fired my rifle once. Within an hour we had the deer dressed out and loaded for the trip home.

As some readers may recall from some previous columns, there are traditions among the Native Americans of North America that the animal the hunter is meant to take will offer themselves to the hunter. Scoff if you wish, but every year personal experience seems to reinforce that tradition. Taking it a step further, that bond between hunter and game animal means the hunter needs to exercise a higher level of responsibility.

That responsibility includes the obligations to hunt in an ethical manner, observing game laws and regulations, and then, when the magical moment happens and the animal is in your sights, to shoot carefully so that the animal will die quickly and with minimal suffering.

On my hunt, my friend John Jacobson, and I discussed this magic, even sacred, moment of the hunt and I commented that while we don’t celebrate the deer’s death, “I am happy that I did my part of the hunt well and that the deer didn’t suffer.” I know this all too well from some past experiences when I didn’t do my part of the hunt as I should have. Some of those memories still come back to haunt me.

 The venison is now stashed away in the freezer and will be the centerpiece of a number of meals in coming months, though one small whitetail doesn’t amount to a lot of meat, sorry to say. Still, each meal will be an occasion to celebrate that gray November day when we reaffirmed those ancient bonds between hunters and wildlife.

While the big game season is now over, there are many more hunting opportunities in coming weeks.

The mountain grouse season, which includes blue (dusky), ruffed and spruce grouse, runs for a couple more weeks before it closes on December 15. Other upland game seasons, including pheasants, partridge, and sharp-tailed grouse, run through New Years Day, and waterfowl seasons extend almost to mid-January. Sage grouse hunting ended November 1.

If my idea of a perfect big game hunting season means firing my rifle just once, the perfect season for the shotgunner is when we do a lot of shooting during the four and a half months of the Montana upland bird and waterfowl seasons. By that standard I’ve had a good hunting season, but need more outings to make it a great season. I’m hoping weather and road conditions will be good enough to get in those late season hunting days.

Flicka, my Labrador retriever and always-enthusiastic hunting partner, is depending on me to help her get out for these late season hunts. She has also been reminding me that we lost out on some hunting opportunities because we went traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday.

 I’d better make it up to her.

Montana’s Big Game Season Begins

For Montana hunters the big day is just about here. If we’ve been out there we probably have a few grouse in the freezer and these last couple weeks have been chasing waterfowl, pheasants and antelope. A lot of hunters have been taking advantage of the archery season.

Yet, that’s all a warm-up. On this Saturday, October 23, the 2010 general elk and deer season begins at sunrise and runs through Sunday, November 28, the Sunday after Thanksgiving Day. For many Montanans, this is the hunting season, or at least the only season that really counts.

And that season beginning date of Saturday, October 23, is not a typographical error. That’s right, the big game hunting seasons now open on Saturday, at the beginning of the weekend.

I don’t know how far back that traditional Sunday opening day goes back. The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks website simply notes it as “recent memory.” My Montana hunting memory goes back 40 years when the big game general season opened at sunrise on a Sunday morning and the pheasant season would open at noon. It was a long-held tradition, though it always struck me as a little crazy, in that the combination of deer and pheasant hunters all out at the same time was almost a guarantee for hunting accidents, or so it seemed.

Certainly, a segment of the hunting public cheering this change will be many clergymen who, over the years, have looked over their congregation on opening day Sunday mornings and noted all the absentees—while also feeling a little jealous because they couldn’t go hunting until they’d preached sermons and prayed their last prayer. This year they can go out on opening day with everybody else and if they’re lucky they can conduct Sunday services while their deer or elk is cooling, waiting to be turned into steaks and roasts.

While we’re on the topic of big game hunting, FWP reminds hunters to follow common sense rules if they use an Off Highway Vehicle when hunting. For example, whether you’re hunting Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management or State wildlife management areas the rule is the same when it comes to using an ATV or other OHV. It’s unlawful to drive the vehicle off designated public roads or trails. If you’re hunting on private land, don’t drive off-trail unless the landowner has already given you the okay. Unauthorized use of an ATV, spreading weeds as you go, is a good way to lose your welcome at a hunting spot.

The rules for off-trail use on public lands don’t have an exception for retrieving game. Yes, it can be a real challenge dragging out a big deer or elk, but it’s still illegal to drive off designated roads and trails.

You likely don’t have to look far to see where people have violated the rules. Last month I noted a 4-wheeler track heading up a mountain meadow. Last year I noted a spot where people had been running circles with ATVs next to their archery hunting camp. They left ruts and bare tracks where they’d gone. A year later those scars are still there. It takes a long time for Nature to heal.

Don’t forget that it’s necessary to have permission to hunt on private land in Montana. This permission may be granted in person or by phone, or by posting of land as open to hunting. There are nine million acres of private land open to public hunting through the Block Management program. Don’t forget to follow the rules of getting permission slips, either through personal contact or at a designated sign-in box. If you haven’t followed the rules you don’t have permission.

Above all, be sure to wear hunter orange clothing during the big game season. When the countryside is full of hunters you want to be visible.

While there are always caveats about responsible hunting, let’s remember what a great time of year this is. People from all over the world envy us when it comes to hunting opportunities. Be safe, be legal, and have a great hunt!