Elk populations in Montana have offered some excellent hunting opportunities the past couple of years, yet harvests have been lackluster in some areas.
"Opportunity generally isn't the issue; good hunting weather and access are," said Gary Hammond, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks wildlife division management bureau chief. "A recent string of mild winters has resulted in lower elk harvests in some areas, even with the additional elk hunting permits and more liberal seasons available."
The general rifle season for elk is generally from Oct. 23 to Nov. 27. Please check the 2005 regulations for details on season types and dates.
Hammond said a trend toward restricting hunter access to private land has also limited the harvest in some parts of the state. The result is an increase in game-damage incidents, more private-landowner complaints and frustrated hunters.
To deal with these issues, a new elk management plan was recently adopted after FWP conducted 23 public meetings to obtain comment and make adjustments.
The elk management plan's adaptive harvest management approach uses standard, liberal and restrictive hunting regulation packages. A hunting district's regulation package is linked to the results of annual surveys that document elk populations, bull/cow ratios, habitat evaluations, and other considerations as compared to the population objectives.
"In 2005, hunters will see regulations for mule deer and elk hunting where the level of hunting opportunity is in sync with how a particular population is doing when compared to the population objectives for that area," Hammond said.
For example, in hunting district 393 north of Bozeman Pass, elk populations are 20 percent or more over the objective for the district, so a liberal five-week brow-tined bull or antlerless elk season offers ample hunting.
Where the population is closer to objective in hunting district 324, in the Gravelly Mountains, there are slightly more restrictive hunting regulations. Here a brow-tined bull elk opportunity runs Oct. 23-30 for hunters with a general elk license, and there is browtined or antlerless elk hunting only from Oct. 31-Nov. 27 on a general license.
An even more restrictive regulation package applies in hunting district 302, south of Clark Canyon Reservoir and west of the Red Rock River. Here there is less cover for elk and the population is within objective, so the general season is for brow-tined bull elk only Oct. 23-Nov. 27 on a general elk license. The brow-tined bull or antlerless elk opportunity is restricted to youth ages 12-14 only. There are a limited number of either-sex elk permits.
FWP wildlife managers would be relieved to see a good elk harvest this winter. Nearly 60 percent of Montana's original elk management units exceeded elk-population objectives before the new elk plan was developed.
Here is an overview of 2005 elk hunting opportunities in the state.
In FWP Region 2 in the general area of Missoula, elk populations are stable to increasing. Aerial surveys show populations at all time highs northwest of Lincoln in hunting district 281; north of Clearwater Junction in hunting districts 282 and 285;west of Missoula in hunting district 203; and along the region's far southern border in hunting districts 250, 270, 214. Calf-cow ratios also have generally improved, averaging about 35 calves per 100 cows. In hunting districts 211 and 212 elk populations have been decreasing, resulting in fewer anterless elk permits in these districts.
In FWP Region 1 in northwestern Montana near Kalispell, elk hunting opportunities look good. Populations are stable with a gradual annual increase in some areas. Calves per 100 cow ratios ranged from 20 in the Galton Mountains east of Eureka in hunting district 109, to 32 in the Lost Trail area of hunting district 103.
North and South Central Montana
In FWP Region 4 in northcentral Montana around Great Falls, elk are plentiful with liberal hunting available including some either-sex elk hunting, antlerless elk by special elk permit drawing only, and second antlerless elk licenses. A liberal either sex elk season for 12- to 14-year old hunters applies in most FWP Region 4 hunting districts. There are also liberal seasons in hunting districts where access is more difficult.
In FWP Region 3 in south central Montana, elk populations in areas south of I-90 and in the Bridger Mountains, Bangtail Mountains, and Shields River Drainage are at or above population objectives with good calf production. Liberal hunting opportunities exist, including some four to five weeks of either-sex or brow-tined bull and anterless elk hunting in some areas.
Exceptions are in the Upper Gallatin and Upper Yellowstone drainages where spring recruitment and late-summer calf survival were very low the past two years. As a result, the Gallatin late season hunt is closed and the Gardiner late season hunt has been reduced from 1,100 antlerless permits to 100. A standard hunting package continues in effect in the northern third of FWP Region 3.
In the portions of FWP Region 6, north and west of Glendive, where there is suitable elk habitat, populations are stable with excellent calf production. In hunting district 690, south of Havre and Chinook, numbers are stable. Populations in the Missouri River Breaks districts are above the long-term average to the west, and slightly below the long-term average to the east.
In FWP Region 7, south and west of Miles City, elk hunters with a general elk license can harvest a cow elk outside of the National Forest boundary in hunting districts 702, 704 and 705 in southeastern Montana.
In hunting district 703, either-sex elk may be harvested on a general elk license from Oct. 23 to Nov. 27. This hunting district is mostly private land and the elk numbers may be low.
The 2005 big game hunting regulations, with details on elk hunting seasons and regulations for all hunting districts, are available on the FWP web site under Hunting, 2005 Hunting Regulations, and at FWP offices and license providers.