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Hunting in Montana Elk Shoulder Seasons

The primary purpose of elk shoulder seasons is to reduce elk populations in areas that are over population objective as outlined in the Montana Elk Management Plan. Montana law (MCA 87-1-323) requires Fish, Wildlife & Parks to manage elk populations to objective, and both Gov. Steve Bullock and our own Fish & Wildlife Commission have tasked FWP officials with addressing these concerns.

A shoulder season is a firearms season that occurs outside the five-week general firearms and archery seasons. While most shoulder seasons focus on antlerless elk harvest on private land and are not intended to replace or reduce harvest during the existing archery or five-week general firearms seasons, a few are meant to address problematic distribution of elk.

Shoulder seasons will vary in timing and function from hunting district to hunting district. In some districts the shoulder seasons will start as early as Aug. 15 and go as late as Feb. 15. In some areas, the shoulder season will occur at the same time as the archery season, while in others it will not include the archery only season. Where a shoulder season and archery season occur at the same time, the shoulder season will mostly be limited to private land.

Shoulder season success will depend on landowners, hunters and FWP working closely together in a cooperative and respectful fashion.

Key points for hunters to remember:
  • Season timing and lengths will be tailored to each hunting district, so know your regulations.
  • Shoulder seasons will be focused on antlerless elk found primarily on private land.
  • Hunters can typically use their general season elk license, antlerless elk permit or an elk B license, depending on the hunting district. Hunters need to check the regulations for each district.
  • Hunters should start early establishing contacts and building relationships with landowners who may offer access for shoulder season hunts.

History

(Montana Outdoor Report video from 2015)

Shoulder seasons represent a strategy at addressing concerns with over-objective elk populations and elk distribution.

The Montana Legislature, through statute (MCA 87-1-323), Gov. Steve Bullock, and our own Fish & Wildlife Commission, have tasked FWP officials with addressing these concerns.

Shoulder seasons are performance-based, meaning that certain criteria for timing and number of animals harvested must be met, as stated in the shoulder season guidelines.

These guidelines have 11 fundamental objectives as well as clear performance criteria to evaluate effectiveness and make sure that adequate harvest of both bulls and cows occurs during the general five-week season.

If the performance criteria are not met after three years, the shoulder season would not be proposed to continue.

In order for shoulder seasons to work at reducing elk everybody has to pitch in – FWP, sportsmen, landowners, everyone.

Guidelines, Fundamental Objectives & Performance Criteria

These guidelines were developed to improve elk harvest and bring elk populations into objective. The guidelines respect private property rights and landowner decisions as well as public trust responsibilities associated with elk management. They also emphasize flexibility with using all currently available harvest tools. These guidelines do not require implementation of any one option.

Season proposals that might include one or more option will continue to be initiated by regional staff.

These guidelines will remain in place as formal guidance for both the Fish and Wildlife Commission and FWP staff. This shall include fundamental objectives, performance criteria, and periodic commission/public review of season performance against those elements.

Information for Hunters

Hunters play a key role in successfully meeting the objectives of the shoulder seasons.

Here, hunters can find all they need to know about taking advantage of shoulder season opportunities in hunting districts where they are approved.

Hunters should not expect shoulder season hunts to be easy. Like always, elk hunting in Montana is a challenging endeavor.

As mentioned, shoulder seasons are opportunities to hunt antlerless elk primarily on private land. Hunter success will depend on landowner cooperation and FWP has worked hard to engage landowners and keep them apprised of the important role they play.

Likewise, hunters have a responsibility to be respectful of the land they hunt on and to be courteous with and respectful of landowners.

As always, hunters need permission to hunt on private land. A shoulder season in no way grants anyone permission to hunt on private land.

 

Block Management and Elk Shoulder Season Hunting Opportunities

Some cooperators who enroll land in the Block Management Program have chosen to allow public elk hunting ONLY during the archery only and general firearms hunting seasons.

However, other Block Management cooperators have chosen to allow public elk hunting during all legal seasons for their respective hunting districts including the shoulder seasons.

Hunters will need to look at the specific Block Management Area maps and the chart in the Block Management Hunting Access Guide to determine when public elk hunting will be allowed on a specific BMA.

Hunters interested in hunting elk on Block Management Areas during elk shoulder season dates prior to the general firearms hunting season are advised to check the particular Block Management Area on which they plan to hunt on a daily basis to determine if a Block Management Area fire closure is in effect.

The Block Management Hunting Access Guide and maps for lands enrolled in the Block Management Program will be available beginning mid-August, either online or upon request, in accordance with regional directions in the Hunting Access Guide or on the website, from FWP regional and area offices.

Hunters are reminded that for Block Management Areas that require reservations, no reservations may be made prior to August 22.

Block Management Program contracts are typically negotiated for a time period of Sept. 1 – Jan. 1. However, multiple cooperators have decided to include their lands in the early and/or late elk shoulder seasons. 

Hunters will need to look at the specific Block Management Area maps and the chart in the Block Management Hunting Access Guide to determine when public elk hunting will be allowed on a specific Block Management Area.

 

Elk Hunt Information

For answers to your localized questions about shoulder seasons, contact FWP in the respective regions:

Region 1 (Northwest Montana)

Headquarters Office
490 North Meridian Road
Kalispell, MT 59901
Phone: (406) 752-5501
Fax: (406) 257-0349
Email: fwprg12@mt.gov

Office Hours: Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

 
Region 2 (Western Montana)

Headquarters Office
3201 Spurgin Road
Missoula, MT 59804
Phone: (406) 542-5500
Fax: (406) 542-5529
Email: fwprg22@mt.gov

Office Hours: Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

 
Region 3 (Southwest Montana)

Headquarters Office
1400 South 19th
Bozeman, MT 59718
Phone: (406) 577-7900
Fax: (406) 577-7907
Email: fwprg3@mt.gov

Office Hours: Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

 
Region 4 (North-Central Montana)

Headquarters Office
4600 Giant Springs Road
Great Falls, MT 59405
Phone: (406) 454-5840
Fax: (406) 761-8477
Email: fwprg42@mt.gov

Office Hours: Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

  • Starting Dec. 1, in White Sulphur Springs, questions can be answered 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday-Friday, by calling (406) 468-5438
 
Region 5 (South-Central Montana)

Headquarters Office
2300 Lake Elmo Drive
Billings, MT 59105
Phone: (406) 247-2940
Fax: (406) 248-5026
Email: fwprg52@mt.gov

Office Hours: Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

 
Region 6 (Northeast Montana)

Headquarters Office
1 Airport Road
Glasgow, MT 59230
Phone: (406) 228-3700
Fax: (406) 228-8161
Email: fwprg62@mt.gov

Office Hours: Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Information for Landowners

Landowners are a vital part of elk management in Montana; most of Montana’s elk spend some or all of the year on private land.

FWP knows that in order for shoulder seasons to work at reducing over-objective elk populations everybody has to pitch in – FWP, sportsmen, landowners, everyone. That’s why some of the fundamental objectives for shoulder seasons speak to landowners.

Landowners within the designated shoulder season districts with elk on their property can expect calls from hunters looking for opportunities to hunt.

In each FWP region, agency officials have reached out to landowners to inform them of the shoulder seasons and provided information about how the hunts will or will not be coordinated and what landowners can expect.

As always, hunters need permission to hunt on private land. A shoulder season in no way grants anyone permission to hunt on private land.

For questions about elk shoulder seasons, call the number for your area below:

Region 1 (Northwest Montana)

Headquarters Office
490 North Meridian Road
Kalispell, MT 59901
Phone: (406) 752-5501
Fax: (406) 257-0349
Email: fwprg12@mt.gov

Office Hours: Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

 
Region 2 (Western Montana)

Headquarters Office
3201 Spurgin Road
Missoula, MT 59804
Phone: (406) 542-5500
Fax: (406) 542-5529
Email: fwprg22@mt.gov

Office Hours: Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

 
Region 3 (Southwest Montana)

Headquarters Office
1400 South 19th
Bozeman, MT 59718
Phone: (406) 577-7900
Fax: (406) 577-7907
Email: fwprg3@mt.gov

Office Hours: Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

 
Region 4 (North-Central Montana)

Headquarters Office
4600 Giant Springs Road
Great Falls, MT 59405
Phone: (406) 454-5840
Fax: (406) 761-8477
Email: fwprg42@mt.gov

Office Hours: Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

 

Region 5 (South-Central Montana)

Headquarters Office
2300 Lake Elmo Drive
Billings, MT 59105
Phone: (406) 247-2940
Fax: (406) 248-5026
Email: fwprg52@mt.gov

Office Hours: Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

 
Region 6 (Northeast Montana)

Headquarters Office
1 Airport Road
Glasgow, MT 59230
Phone: (406) 228-3700
Fax: (406) 228-8161
Email: fwprg62@mt.gov

Office Hours: Monday - Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Shoulder Season Performance Evaluations

Evaluating the Effectiveness of “Performance-based” Shoulder Seasons

“Performance-based” shoulder seasons were put in place to reduce elk populations in areas that are over population objective.

But there is concern that offering shoulder seasons without any sideboards could lead to de facto privatization of wildlife and facilitate exclusive use of a public resource.

Therefore, clearly defined fundamental objectives for what shoulder seasons are meant to accomplish were developed along with performance criteria to evaluate the effectiveness of a season in achieving those objectives.

A full explanation of shoulder seasons, the fundamental objectives and the performance criteria is found in the Final Elk Season Guidelines Flexible Season Structure with Performance-based Shoulder Seasons.

If a shoulder season in a hunting district does not meet the performance criteria, FWP would not propose to continue the shoulder season.

The Performance Criteria for Elk Harvest are:
  1. During the past three years, the number of bulls harvested during the archery-only and five-week general seasons combined (not including the shoulder season) is more than half (>50%) the number of bulls recruited during that three-year period AND
  2. During the past three years, the number of cow elk harvested during the archery-only and five-week general seasons combined (not including the shoulder season) is more than half (>50%) the number of cows recruited during the three-year period AND
  3. During the past three years, total harvest of cows during all seasons combined (archery-only, five-week general and shoulder season) is greater than the total number of cows recruited during the three-year period AND
  4. During the past three years, total harvest of all elk during all seasons combined (archery-only, five-week general and shoulder season) is greater than the total number of all elk recruited during the three-year period OR
  5. If harvest criteria have not been met due to clear and widely accepted extenuating circumstances (e.g., weather, forest fire, etc.), the shoulder season may be continued, as long as access to elk during the general season is not considered to be the main reason harvest criteria are not being met. If lack of access during the general season is the main reason for not meeting harvest criteria, then the hunting district(s) or a portion of the hunting district may, at the Commission’s discretion, shift to antlerless only. OR:
  6. Other shoulder seasons not subject to the above harvest criteria are allowed if they are consistent with the fundamental objectives and have broad, expressed support from landowners, sportsmen, FWP and the commission. The Devil’s Kitchen Working Group represents one example of this sort of significant and diverse collaboration. While the Devil’s Kitchen Working Group is not the only possible manifestation of diverse and significant support, it does represent the intended level of collaboration and is identified here as a standard against which other collaborations/support will be measured. To ensure this standard of broad and diverse collaboration is met, the commission shall review the nature and amount of landowner and hunter support when considering any shoulder season proposal under this guidance.

Click on the links below to see the performance criteria for elk harvest in the hunting districts where there were shoulder seasons.

A thorough evaluation of shoulder seasons will occur after the 2018-2019 season, after three hunting seasons. The overall performance of the shoulder season in each hunting district will be evaluated and a decision made as to whether to continue the shoulder season or not.

2015 Pilot Project Evaluation

The Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted the concept of shoulder seasons in October 2015.

Not wanting to wait until fall 2017 to begin, the Commission and FWP instituted a “Pilot Project” in five hunting districts to see how shoulder seasons might work.

It needs to be well understood that this was not a full-blown shoulder season because hunters and landowners did not have time to understand or even try to meet evaluation criteria, it was already October so there was no opportunity for an early season, plus hunting was already in full swing with the archery season and rifle season to open soon. But it was a trial run in hunting districts 410, 445, 446, 449, and 452 using a late season that ran from November 30, 2015 to February 15, 2017.

We learned a lot.

The response from hunters was overwhelming, so much so that even though FWP put on additional staff and directed other staff’s time we were swamped.

There were often over 500 calls per day in addition to the hundreds of people walking in, and we couldn’t handle them all. This was frustrating to hunters, of course, and we learned that we need to do better at getting information out to folks in the future. Part of getting information out is this Shoulder Season website, but we will also be doing a lot more outreach through TV, radio, newspapers, and social media.

We also learned about harvesting elk. We learned that shoulder season can be effective in harvesting a lot of elk if landowners participate. In HDs 445, 446, 449, and 452, where there was good landowner participation, there was a very good harvest of bull and antlerless elk during the archery and general seasons and 611 antlerless elk taken during the shoulder season, increasing the archery and general season harvest by 72%.

In addition to a good bull harvest, the total all-seasons-combined harvest of cow elk was about twice what it had been in any of the previous five years. In HD 410, where there was less landowner participation in the late shoulder season, there were only 31 cows taken during the shoulder season compared to 444 during the archery and general season.

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