Our point of view

Jeff HagenerConsider a cow elk this year

Hunters who didn’t get their elk last year might find it hard to believe, but Montana has too many elk in many parts of the state. The overabundance has caused winter range to be overgrazed and created problems for landowners who’ve seen their haystacks depleted and fences trampled.

It’s the job of this department to manage Montana’s wildlife. To manage elk, we rely on hunters to harvest a certain number of cow elk to prevent populations from getting too high. Unfortunately, not enough cows are being shot each year to keep elk numbers down.

Years ago I was a hunting guide, and I know from experience that most elk hunters would prefer to shoot a bull. There’s prestige attached to those antlers, and I’ve been in more than a few elk camps where hunters got ribbed for shooting “just a cow.”

But you can mount only so many heads, and if your main objective each elk season is to get up in the mountains and then bring home some meat for your family, it might make more sense to take a cow than to hold out for a bull and not get anything. Cow elk generally taste better. Bulls use up most of their fat reserves during the rut and, as a result, tend to have less-palatable meat. Antlers might look good on the wall, but they make for tough chewing.

Another reason to harvest a cow is that it helps with the overall management of Montana’s elk population. If more hunters take cows in areas where elk numbers exceed population objectives, we can improve winter range and maybe increase frustrated landowners’ tolerance for having elk on the landscape.

Many landowners appreciate hunters who will shoot a cow elk. Too often, hunters ask for permission to hunt elk but really mean “bull elk.” That makes it tough for the landowner. Harvesting a cow does much more to lower the population than harvesting a bull.

Wisconsin has what it calls an Earn-a-Buck Program, in which hunters in some districts overrun with deer must shoot a doe before they “earn” the right to shoot a buck. I’m not advocating such a program for Montana’s elk season, but it’s an interesting idea that more hunters and landowners might begin discussing among themselves. I know of some landowners who tell inquiring hunters that if they agree to shoot a cow elk this season, the hunters will have an opportunity to go after a bull next year. It’s something to think about.

Montana continues to look for innovative ways to bring elk (and deer) numbers down to levels more tolerable to ranchers and farmers. A few years ago, the legislature gave us authority to begin offering, in some hunting districts, the option of shooting a second elk. With these A-9 licenses, a hunter can shoot a cow early and still have an opportunity to take a bull later in the season.

This year we’re trying to concentrate more hunting pressure on cow elk during Montana’s five-week general season by eliminating most early and late hunts and liberalizing seasons. In many districts, hunters can now shoot any elk, not just brow-tined bulls as has been the case in recent years.
I like harvesting a big bull as much as the next hunter. But over the past ten years, I’ve passed on several bulls and instead have harvested cows. I like eating the high-quality meat, and I feel better knowing I’m helping manage Montana’s elk herd. I hope other hunters will start feeling the same way.Bear bullet


M. Jeff Hagener is Director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks