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Hunting regulations public meeting held in Miles City

Hunting - Region 7

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Only three people attended a January 10 public hearing in Miles City on proposed hunting regulations for the next two years, and they were satisfied with existing and proposed policies.

Chilly weather likely hampered turnout for the meeting at Miles Community College, which was one of several held around the state. FWP hosted a similar meeting in Glendive the following evening, which was attended by eight people. The public had until Wednesday, January 24 to submit comments. The Fish & Wildlife commission will make final decisions on all season proposals at its February 15 meeting.

At the Miles City meeting, local Fish, Wildlife & Parks officials provided updates on game populations across Region 7, reviewed proposed changes and showed a video on Chronic Wasting Disease.

Elk

According to Wildlife Biologist Ryan DeVore, the general consensus is that elk populations in Region 7 are healthy and increasing.

At last count, Hunting District 700 held upwards of 1,400 elk, boasting a phenomenal 52 calves per 100 cows, and 32 bulls per 100 cows.

“That’s well above a stable population,” DeVore said.

Harvest is steady at just under 600 elk in 2016 – 300 cows and 240 bulls.

Aerial surveys don’t quite cover all of HDs 702, 704 and 705, but DeVore estimates 3,500 elk in those areas. Bull-to-cow ratios are 45:100, and calf-to-cow ratios are 53:100. About 450 elk were harvested in 2016.

Noting that all of the numbers are above objectives in the state’s elk management plan, Dale Tribby asked why Region 7 hasn’t implemented a shoulder season. He added that he isn’t advocating for one.

DeVore said they have been able to manage elk using local tools already in place, including liberal general season opportunities, stack yards, kill permits and game damage hunts. Going to a shoulder season could close doors on access, he said, which is the root of the issue here.

Wildlife Manager John Ensign noted that the management plan, drafted in 2005, has outdated population objectives and is scheduled for review.

DeVore said that despite the increasing populations, there is still room for elk to expand, and growth hasn’t outpaced social tolerance with landowners.

There are four regional proposals for elk for the 2018-2019 seasons, none of which drew opposition at the meeting.

The first is to make the 007-00 B-license valid during the archery season everywhere in hunting districts 700-705, including on national forest lands and the Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge. During archery season those lands are currently exempted. The 007-00 license would still NOT be valid on the Custer National Forest or the CMR during rifle season. The second proposal is to incorporate the existing 798-01 archery-only B-license into the 007-00 B-license. The current quota for 007-00 is 500, and the 798-01 quota of 300 would be rolled into that for a total of 800 tags.

DeVore said expanding 007-00 to the whole region helps to distribute hunting pressure, distribute herds from private lands and minimize damage issues.

“It looks good to me,” said Caleb Bollman.

The third proposal is to raise the quota on the 799-00 B-license from 400 to 600, with a range cap of 800. This is a popular antlerless elk license valid for all land types in hunting districts 702, 704 and 705.

The fourth proposal is to allow spike bull harvest on a general license during the general and archery seasons in hunting districts 702, 704 and 705. It would be in areas currently open to antlerless harvest on a general elk license.

Wildlife Biologist Steve Atwood said aerial surveys in those areas show about 45 bulls per 100 cows. Estimated spike harvest would be 20 to 25, a very sustainable number. It maintains the limited either-sex permit structure while allowing more opportunity.

DeVore said it will not hurt the age structure, and it could help in situations where people mistake a spike for a cow.

Antelope

There is just one proposal for antelope season: to change the 900-20 archery-only license to a first-and-only choice with a separate earlier drawing.

Hunters would still apply by June 1, but they would make the 900-20 license their first and only choice.  Quotas would be set after the July Fish & Wildlife Commission meeting, and drawing results would be out in July. This gives hunters, particularly nonresidents, more time to plan a hunt before the August 15 opener.

Additionally, biologists could finish their July-August antelope trend surveys in time for the commission to adopt quotas for either-sex and doe-fawn licenses.

Andy Miller said the 900-20 license is a nice backup if you do not draw a rifle tag. He never saw another hunter in the three seasons he used it. He understands nonresidents struggling to plan their hunts under the current system. Miller also favors getting survey numbers before setting quotas for remaining licenses.

There have been a handful of surplus 900-20 licenses available in recent years, and that should increase if it becomes first choice only, Ensign noted.

Atwood gave an update on antelope populations, which have recovered to 2 percent below the 10-year average. However, numbers in some trend survey areas are still down. Atwood and Ensign believe the drought has had an impact.

Currently Region 7 issues 7,500 either-sex licenses and 1,500 doe-fawn licenses. Buck-to-doe ratios are strong at 60 to 100, and fawn-to-doe ratios are even better at 84 to 100, but as long as recovery lags in some areas they are hesitant to increase quotas.

Tribby noted that while he is driving north of the Yellowstone River he doesn’t see the numbers of antelope he used to.

Deer

There are no proposed season changes for deer specific to Region 7, but Wildlife Biologist Melissa Foster shared population trends for both species.

Mule deer have definitely rebounded from the severe winters of 2010 and 2011, according to Foster.

“As of last spring, we are pretty much at a 30-year-plus high point right now in terms of deer numbers,” she said.

In trend surveys, biologists were seeing upwards of 40 bucks per 100 does after hunting season, with 25 to 30 of those mature bucks.

“We’re getting a more normal age structure back,” Foster said. “A lot of happy hunters this fall, lots of mature deer, lots of bucks - not too much to complain about.”

The current quota for antlerless mule deer B licenses is 11,000, with the first license allocated in the drawing and the rest through surplus.

“We were hearing quite a bit from folks over the summer: ‘You’ve got to give these deer a break, you shouldn’t be selling so many doe tags, and we have the drought, and we have these fires’ - give them a break, basically,” she said.

“Actually, it’s a little bit counterintuitive, but following those fires and drought, you actually want to harvest a little bit harder,” Foster explained. “Over winter, deer rely on two things: browse and stored fat reserves to make up the difference between what they can consume and their energy needs."

“So with the drought, you have poor browse production, a lot more deer going into the winter in a little less prime body condition than they might in a normal year, and so by harvesting a little bit heavier, what you’re able to do is split those limited browse resources between fewer mouths on the landscape, and the result of that can be increase of overwinter survival, fewer resorptions and abortions of fawns, does that enter spring in a little better body condition, and they’re better able to support those really young fawns.”

So more liberal harvest before winter can result in lower overwinter mortality and more deer making it through the winter, she said.

Switching to white-tailed deer, Foster said the first B license for residents and nonresidents is available over the counter with no quotas, and residents can purchase a second B license capped at 2,000. There are about 6,000 B licenses sold each year, and harvest success is between 30 and 50 percent.

“White-tailed buck and doe harvest has been pretty consistent over the last 30 years or so. We’re harvesting around 2,500 bucks and does every year,” she said.

Tribby asked if FWP planned to increase the mule deer doe quota of 11,000 with the population as high as it is.

Ensign said they opted to leave it alone for now and assess populations after spring aerial surveys are completed.

Region 7 Supervisor Brad Schmitz noted that 11,000 is the top of the current quota range, so FWP would have to seek approval from the Fish & Wildlife Commission to raise the range. But if populations keep climbing as they are, they will have to look at increasing the quota to head off a big population crash.

Miller asked if returning to district-specific quotas would help to control populations, rather than regionwide quotas.

Foster said regionwide management works well and offers flexibility, allowing hunters to identify where the deer are distributed and landowners to manage access as they see fit. Smaller districts would require more time and resources to survey animals and offer little flexibility in districts with low numbers or disease outbreaks, for instance.

Ensign said that, of the 11,000 B licenses available, 4,000 went by drawing, and the remaining surplus did not sell out until after the start of the rifle season. This allows FWP to shift hunters where they are needed in real time, which is the goal.

Hunters can hold a total of seven deer licenses in combination, which prompts some complaints. But Ensign said 90 percent of people purchase two tags or less.

Expand Youth Deer Hunt

A proposal to expand the Youth Deer Hunt came from the 2017 Legislature. Currently, Montana offers a two-day youth hunt in October on the Thursday and Friday preceding the big game season opener, when students are also out of school during Montana Education Association days. The proposal is to extend the hunt to four days, a Thursday through Sunday, but only in years when MEA days do not immediately precede the opener. The remaining years would be two-day hunts. The intent was to allow parents who do not have weekdays off to participate with their kids.

Ensign said some people oppose a youth hunt cutting into archery season.

Tribby favored scheduling a permanent four-day youth hunt between the openings of antelope and big game season, fearing that the alternating-year proposal would catch some people off guard.

The proposal also would raise the age limit from 15 to 17. Participating youths still must be accompanied by a non-hunting adult.

Miller asked why kids can’t also shoot elk, and Regional Supervisor Brad Schmitz explained that the youth deer hunt was set in statute and was specific to deer.

Black Bear

In Bear Management Unit 700, FWP proposes raising the spring quota from 2 to 4. Ensign said black bear numbers look good and are expanding, and animals are healthy and productive. Region 7 has hit the quota of two for several seasons. No one commented on the proposal.

Exception to Ungulate Urine Ban

There were some questions but no comments on a proposal to make exceptions to a ban on imports of ungulate urine from states with Chronic Wasting Disease. The exception is for urine produced in a facility that meets requirements set by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission. 

Boundary Change

Region 7 would like to change the boundary between HDs 590 and 702 from Highway 47 to the east bank of the Bighorn River. Atwood noted that many people including area landowners already think the boundary is the river. The change also makes sense for fisheries crews from each region.