Elk harvest in Madison Valley picked up dramatically this past weekend as cold weather and snow pushed herds out of the Madison Range and onto private ranchland in the central and southern Madison Valley.
However, along with the success has come an alarming, albeit normal, increase in unethical and illegal hunting, said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park officials.
This past weekend 525 hunters stopped at the Cameron hunter check station south of Ennis. Nearly 30 percent of them had game, including 139 elk, six mule deer and five whitetail deer.
“The volume of harvest coming through the check station was stunning,” FWP Wildlife Biologist Julie Cunningham said in a statement. “With the right combination of weather conditions and elk movements hunters had excellent success.”
“Most of the elk harvested came off private lands,” added Cunningham.
Most of the elk were killed in an area commonly known as the flats. The flats is an area of predominantly private ranchland void of any substantial cover for elk herds.
The typical scenario is that snow and cold weather will push elk out of the high country and onto the flats where they bunch up in large herds. These herds are highly visible to hunters from county roads and the highway, said Sam Sheppard, FWP region 3 warden captain.
The scenario of a high numbers of visible elk combined with a large number of hunters and good access to roads makes for a chaotic outcome, he said.
“It seems like people don’t take the time they normally would to make good decisions,” Sheppard said. “There are some people who continue to do the right thing, but there are far too many of the other.”
And once word gets out to other places around the state that the elk are in the flats, the situation could get worse before the season ends this Sunday, he said.
“When elk show up like this and the word gets out, it’s kind of like Katy bar the door because you get people from all parts of the state coming in,” Sheppard said.
Typical problems include people chasing and harassing elk with their vehicles, trespass, people shooting randomly into tightly bunched elk herds and shooting from the road.
“We get into what we call slob hunting instances,” said Ryan Gosse, local FWP game warden.
Gosse defines slob hunting as unethical, hurried, thoughtless hunting.
This past week, game wardens have written two tickets for harvesting elk in a closed season, four tickets for harassing wildlife with a vehicle, one ticket for shooting a spike elk, four tickets for trespassing, one ticket for shooting from the road, one ticket for mule deer doe harvest and issued numerous verbal and written warnings
This past week he’s had to sort out an argument between hunters over who killed an elk, take a report of a house being shot and deal with numerous reports of hunters shooting over each other.
Elk numbers in the southern Madison Valley are over management objective, which has led to liberal hunting regulations, Sheppard said.
Landowners in the area have also been allowing more public access to help alleviate the problem of elk herding up and damaging their rangeland and fences.
The access is good; the illegal and unethical behavior from hunters is not, Gosse said.
“We’re glad about the access, we’re glad about the harvest,” he said. “We’re not glad about the unethical and illegal hunting.”
The solution right now is more enforcement, Sheppard said.
He’s pulling game wardens in from other areas to help out on the flats, he said.
“I think our best solution is for me to put as many people down there as possible and continue to stress ethics through enforcement,” Sheppard said. “In instances where we do observe and can prove illegal behavior it’s going to be a fairly severe punishment.”
If anyone observes questionable or illegal hunting behavior, they can call 1-800-TIPMONT to report any game violation.