Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is hosting a free elk summit in Bozeman, Dec. 8, for elk experts, landowners, hunters, outfitters and others to talk about the best ways to manage elk. Meanwhile, the state's elk will be doing what they always do this time of year.
Winter conditions concentrate elk, making this a good time of year for FWP wildlife managers to count them. These surveys show that Montana's elk populations are beyond FWP's management objectives in many elk management units.
Wildlife managers estimate there are more than 130,000 elk in Montana, up from 55,000 in 1988. Sixty-four percent of the state's EMUs exceed the state's objectives for elk numbers. Eighteen of Montana's 46 elk management units are 20 percent or more above population objectives.
FWP wildlife managers are not surprised, but they are concerned. Montana's recent run of mild winters has decreased the nutritional stress on elk. More elk, young and old, have survived recent winters than may have survived a traditional Montana winter. Mild winters also make more landscape accessible to support the expanding number of elk.
However, while elk numbers are up, wildlife managers are concerned that hunter harvest is not keeping pace with the population growth, despite liberal hunting opportunities for antlerless elk. FWP generally increases or decreases cow elk harvest opportunities to regulate the size of elk herds.
Harvesting an elk is hard work and may be a growing challenge for Montana hunters who are predominantly aging baby boomers and their still spry parents. Hunters have also been handicapped by the lack of snow for tracking and to drive elk to lower elevations. Another factor to consider is that about thirty-five percent of Montana's elk spend time on private lands that don't offer public hunting access.
On the other hand, a recent FWP survey found that only 12 percent of elk hunters, 18 percent of elk outfitters and 43 percent of landowners agree or strongly agree that there are too many elk in the state.
Whatever your viewpoint on the numbers, a discussion about elk inevitably begins to sound a lot like a discussion about the ways Montana is changing.
That is why, as Montana's elk put their winter survival skills to the test and go about the business of producing the next generation of young, it is time to talk. For information about the 2007 Montana Elk Summit in Bozeman, Saturaday, Dec. 8, visit FWP's web site at fwp.mt.gov and click on Elk Summit.