An advisory committee has recommended that state wildlife managers require elk hunters to choose between archery or rifle seasons in an effort to reduce crowding and pressure on public lands.
The 12-member Elk Management Citizen Advisory Group was formed by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Director Hank Worsech earlier this year following a contentious season setting process and debate over how to manage some burgeoning elk populations and difficulties with public access. The group, made up of a mix of landowners or managers and public hunters, is charged with developing elk management recommendations with a focus on improving relationships between public hunters, landowners and the department.
The group has met multiple times over the last few months, advancing ideas with the aid of a “sounding board.” FWP received 243 applications to serve on the group, and those not chosen were given the opportunity to serve as sounding board members. Worsech has said advisory group members were appointed based on diversity of viewpoints rather than interest group representation.
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On Thursday, the group adopted its first four recommendations, ranging from a few changes to the game damage hunting program to what would be a monumental shift for many elk hunters in requiring them to choose either archery or rifles seasons.
FWP spokesman Greg Lemon said that elk management and hunting is currently being tackled by multiple entities. Along with the elk management advisory group, FWP is conducting public scoping meetings across the state on an update to its elk management plan. That includes an opportunity for the public to weigh in on elk population objectives, which have been a hot button issue as wildlife managers tackle high elk numbers in some areas of the state where private land access is heavily restricted. The Private Land/Public Wildlife Council has also been working on parameters for 454 access agreements as well as a new hunter ethics campaign, he said.
“Those three things are working independently of each other but the whole idea is to use those efforts to improve elk management in Montana,” Lemon said, with the advisory group’s recommendations integrated into the additional efforts.
With hunters raising concerns about crowding and lack of game, the advisory group on Thursday debated at length the “choose your weapon/season” proposal, realizing it would likely see some public pushback. Currently hunters may purchase a general elk license as well as an archery stamp — archers must pass a safety course. That allows hunters some of the longest hunting seasons in the West to pursue elk in both the 6-week archery and 5-week general season. Although many hunters only hunt with archery equipment or firearms, many also hunt with both, and a requirement to choose could represent a significant loss of opportunity.
In addition, the recommendation calls for shifts to some seasons. Archery season would begin Sept. 1 and run for five weeks. Then for the two- or three-week break before the start of the general rifle season in late October, a private land hunt for cows would be allowed.
The intent of the proposal is to ease overcrowding and hunting pressure on public land bull elk, committee members said.
Committee member Chuck Rein, a landowner and retired outfitter from Big Timber, said that FWP would need to hold public hearings if the proposal stands a chance of gaining hunter acceptance.
“It’s too big of a change to not have hearings. If the public rejects it, it’s never going to work,” he said.
Debate on the proposal included concerns of whether it would have the desired effect and if some unintended consequences could result.
Scott Van Dyken, the lone member to ultimately vote against the proposal, believed it would likely cut down on the number of archery hunters but do little to ease crowding during the general season. Many who hunt with both a bow and rifle would choose rifle due to higher success rates, he said.
“I don’t see this working to relieve rifle pressure,” he said.
The group saw some agreement on the need for FWP to gather better data, including polling hunters to see how many would choose each option.
The group also raised some concerns that hunters would split seasons between species, and what that would mean for deer populations. Specifically, archery hunters wanting to pursue bull elk during the rut could hunt during the archery season but then hunt mule deer during the rifle season, which could significantly increase pressure on deer.
The group also finalized a recommendation to reform elk shoulder seasons. The seasons were implemented several years ago in an effort to reduce elk populations in over-objective districts, finding some mixed results.
The group recommended shoulder seasons continue but be used more strategically. Proposals include waiting two weeks after the end of general season to begin shoulder seasons, adding the shoulder season between archery and rifle season, and that shoulder seasons only be used on private land — the commission approved some public land shoulder seasons during the last season. Also, early shoulder seasons held in August would cease in favor of game damage hunts.
Committee member Race King, a ranch manager from Dillon, noted that Montana’s hunting seasons are very long and shoulder seasons have seen some concerns from hunting groups, but said they are an important tool to manage elk numbers in some places.
“The intent is to reassess, not do away with (shoulder seasons),” he said.
The group also recommends changes to the game damage hunt program.
Currently, hunters who add their names to a roster are called at random should a game damage hunt be approved. In order to qualify for a damage hunt, landowners by law must allow some public access.
The recommendation seeks to define public access as unpaid, including through block management, friends and family, and 454 agreements in addition to open public access. The proposal further calls for allowing biologists or landowners to select a portion of hunters for a damage hunt and to strike hunters due to “bad behavior.”
Hunters may also be required to either live within 150 miles of the hunt or agree to attend the hunt within 24 hours at the time of application. Hunters may also be charged a fee. Finally, the recommendation proposes two sign-up periods for hunters to apply for late or early damage hunts.
The group’s final recommendation calls for promotion of local elk working groups. Biologists and possibly other FWP staff would attend working group meetings where members would share information between landowners, hunters, outfitters and FWP, and work to address concerns or needed regulatory changes.
The elk working group will meet at least twice more this month as it vets additional recommendations. Proposals currently on the table include a special private-land-only cow elk license for districts over objective; better collaboration between state and federal entities; improving FWP communication to encourage better hunter behavior; and a new block management category giving landowners more control over requirements for public access. While not a formal recommendation, the group also encouraged FWP to address management, including predation, in areas with under-objective elk populations.
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.