Elk Shoulder Seasons Approved by FWP

Elk standing in field - Skip Kowalski - Dec 2013Photo Courtesy of Skip Kowalski

Now that the dust has settled and elk “shoulder seasons” have been approved by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, it’s time to step back and look at what it means for the future of hunting in the Treasure State. The commission in February approved these additional elk seasons in 43 hunting districts throughout the state in an effort to address populations that are over the targeted objective laid out in the statewide elk management plan.

That decision came after a process that was well over a year in the works, with more than a dozen Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists, game wardens and other officials meeting to craft a proposal to address overpopulated elk herds. And it followed a bill in the 2015 Legislature, SB 245, sponsored by Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, that would have written the opportunity for late hunting seasons into state law. The bill was vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock, but in his veto statement he said FWP was working on alternatives to address elk management.

First off, what is a shoulder season, and how is it different than the game damage and management seasons that FWP was already using?

A shoulder season is a rifle hunting season that is established outside of the regular five-week general season and is printed in the hunting regulations. They cover entire hunting districts and can include additional permits, or use general licenses, as well as second cow elk “B” tags. They can start as early as August 15 and run as late as February 15.

In comparison, game damage and management hunts are held on a smaller scale, down to an individual ranch, to address either a point-source issue on a particular property as well as an elk population that is over objective. They happen through a process laid out in state law as well as in state administrative rules set by Montana FWP. They are smaller scale, and have eligibility requirements that include some level of reasonable public access during the general hunting season for landowners to qualify.

That’s important, because the five-week season is Montana’s time-tested method of managing our wildlife populations. It has worked for decades. And the law that requires that was requested more than two decades ago by lawmakers who saw what happens when some properties receive no hunting pressure throughout the general season.

MWF supports private property rights, and it is every landowner’s decision whom to allow to hunt on their land. But those decisions on hunter access can have major implications for wildlife management that can lead to adverse effects on their neighbors. Solid research has shown that elk learn where refuges with no or very little hunting pressure are. And once they do, other elk follow.

These areas are incredibly difficult for professional wildlife managers to deal with. With that knowledge, FWP worked to craft a proposal that creates incentives for landowners to allow enough hunting during the general rifle season to affect elk numbers, as well as to help redistribute them on the landscape. That’s key, because quality hunting and better wildlife management are dependent on spreading out hunters, as well as spreading out wildlife.

The elk shoulder seasons aren’t just extra seasons. They’re called “performance based” shoulder seasons and that performance is based on guidelines the Commission adopted in October. They’re meant to make the shoulder seasons more effective, and prevent them from becoming the old late elk seasons, which were ineffective at controlling elk numbers. Those seasons in many areas actually lead to growing elk herds, despite the length of the season running into mid-February.

The guidelines state clearly that the shoulder seasons are meant to supplement general season harvest and not replace it. Here they are, with an explanation of each:

1. The harvest of bull elk for three years during the archery and general seasons must reach half of the bull recruitment during the same time.
2. The number of cow elk killed during the archery and general seasons must also be half of the total number of cow elk recruited into the population.
3. The total number of cow elk harvested for all seasons combined, including the extended shoulder seasons, must be greater than the recruitment of new cow into a district’s population.
4. The three year harvest of all elk for all seasons combined must exceed the total number of elk recruited to a population.

The guidelines also lay out exceptions that allow for shoulder seasons in areas where hunters, landowners and FWP have worked together to reach agreement. But it is important that those are kept to a minimum.

Why are the guidelines so important? They ensure that Montana keeps its focus for harvest on our general season, to promote the democracy of hunting. This is when everyone has an equal chance to hunt elk. It’s when Montanans and their out of state guests schedule week-long hunting trips. And biologically, it’s the most ethical time of year to be harvesting elk, because cows aren’t far along in their pregnancies and calves can survive on their own.

Hunting pressure on elk in valley bottoms during the general season can help push them back to higher elevations on public land. That will help make for better elk hunting for everyone.

MWF will be monitoring the harvest data from these shoulder season hunts to ensure that FWP is sticking to the guidelines. If a district doesn’t meet the criteria, the shoulder seasons need to go away. We will be working to ensure FWP sticks with the guidelines as it works to improve elk management.

With the help of our friends and neighbors in the farming and ranching community, we can make these seasons a success and bring elk numbers back down to the objective population.

Stay tuned. Please feel free to provide feedback to Nick Gevock, MWF conservation director, as well as FWP biologists in your areas around the state.

Nick Gevock is Montana Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Director. You can send him questions or comments at ngevock@mtwf.org.


Elk sticks out tongue during winter scene.

Hunters are often asked to give up opportunity when a game species is struggling. And as conservationists, we know that it’s the responsible thing to do for the long-term health of our cherished public wildlife resources. In Montana, we have a long history of stepping up and doing just that. An excellent example is with antelope in eastern Montana following the brutal winter of 2010-2011. We went from 13,000 either sex licenses and an additional 7,000 doe tags to a total of 3,000 tags in southeastern Montana. It was a tough change, but that herd is recovering. Future generations will thank us for protecting their opportunity to hunt these antelope.

Hunting District 313, near the town of Gardiner on the north boundary of Yellowstone National Park, is another example where we need to limit hunting in order to support the long-term survival of our big game for future generations. The northern Yellowstone elk herd, which moves between the park and public and private lands north of there, has dropped to an average of just 2.7 mature bull elk per 100 cow elk. The number is below the threshold that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) considers sustainable, and the agency has proposed to address the situation by going from the current unlimited permit system to a limited draw for 75 bull permits.

This is a dramatic change, but it’s necessary. FWP biologist Karen Loveless has analyzed the data and come up with a science-based recommendation to protection the long-term survival of the herd. That’s what wildlife managers do – they use the best available science to recommend management actions that will keep the herd around for the future.

Unfortunately, FWP’s proposal has encountered some harsh, unwarranted criticism. Last week, the agency held a public information session on the proposal where several outfitters and area hunters criticized Loveless’ data. They pointed to a couple years when the herd wasn’t surveyed, including one year when the agency skipped the survey for budget reasons, to refute all of the data the agency has assembled. One outfitter repeatedly questioned Loveless’ educational background.

We can’t stick our heads in the sand or talk our way out of paying attention to good science. Facts are facts. The herd in HD 313 is struggling when it comes to bull-cow ratios. It’s been on the decline, despite the fact that the overall herd numbers are rising. Some who oppose the proposal are making claims about how much money it could cost the town of Gardiner to limit permits, but doing nothing will cost even more.

The Montana Wildlife Federation supports FWP’s efforts to recover the Gardiner elk herd. As hunters and conservationists, our first priority should always be the long-term survival of the public wildlife resource, managed with the best science. We can thank past generations for limiting their own hunting opportunity so that we can enjoy the best wildlife in the West today. We owe the same to future generations.

Nick Gevock is Montana Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Director.

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Alec Underwood

Federal Conservation Campaigns Director

Alec is responsible for developing and implementing MWF’s federal conservation advocacy and policy campaigns to protect Montana’s fish and wildlife. He spends most of his free time hunting big game and fly fishing Montana’s cherished trout rivers. He also enjoys backpacking, skiing, photography, and woodworking.