Montana hunters have been giving a great deal of attention to elk in recent years, and for good reason. This year the statewide elk population is estimated at 176,000, an all-time high. We have more than 80 hunting districts where elk are over the targeted “objective” population established by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which is developed in consultation with landowners based on their tolerances for elk.
The discussion goes on and on about what to do to better manage wildlife. Shoulder seasons that span roughly six months long, second elk tags for cows only and cow elk hunting for all five weeks on a general license – all of these are thrown out as solutions to our elk population and distribution issues. But one method is time-tested, and proven, to lead to sound wildlife management – putting public hunters on the ground to hunt public elk.
A prime example is an area just south of Dillon in Hunting District 325, where FWP struggled for years to manage the elk herd. The adjoining public lands had fewer and fewer elk in them, but the center pivot hayfields on one ranch in the area was overrun with hundreds of elk. Sometimes close to a 1,000 elk were on the ranch, and the landowner charged a fee for elk hunting, both cows and bulls. But finally, after nearly a decade, even the landowner had enough when hundreds more elk showed up, further damaging crops and fences. The rancher three years ago started to allow public hunters.
The response was overwhelming. People were happy to show up and kill a cow elk. Some would drive from all over Montana. And because the landowner was allowing public hunters during the general season, the property qualified for a game damage hunt that started early and ran late. People would take vacation days to come kill an elk, and last season they killed more than 300 elk, according to the area FWP biologist. Two large, adjoining ranches cooperated as well, although they had been allowing hunters for several years.
It helped not only with population control, but also elk distribution. Hunters reported seeing dramatically more elk in the Blacktail Mountains, which are public land and offer good elk hunting. And after three seasons, far fewer elk are showing up on the fields. In fact, this season they have yet to call a hunter off the game damage roster.
At the same time, the hunting district’s population remains healthy. But those elk are in different places, with far more on public land and accessible to public hunters.
The bottom line is that hunters have to be part of the solution to these issues of elk overabundance. It’s not a big mystery. We’ve known it for years. Now it’s time to start the constructive conversations with landowners in other parts of the state struggling to manage their wildlife, and craft some access solutions that benefit landowners, hunters and wildlife.
Nick Gevock is the Conservation Director for the Montana Wildlife Federation.