“If the weather continues as is, we are not going to see the harvest we typically do at the end of the season,” said Dean Waltee, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks biologist, discussing elk and deer harvest. “We’ll just ride out the mild years and the harvest will come down, and every few years we’ll get a good snow year and make up the harvest.”
Waltee, who covers the Ruby Valley and surrounding areas, and his Madison Valley counterpart Julie Cunningham, do not set harvest quotas for elk and deer.
“With elk, we have an objective population range,” Waltee explained.
For example, in the Gravelly “complex,” which spans the southern half of Madison County, the hope is to have an elk population between 6,400 and 9,600, with an objective of 8,000.
“At the end of last (hunting) season we had 8,700 elk in that country,” Waltee said. “Coming out of winter, we had about 2,400 calves on the ground, so we probably started this season with 11,100 elk, or somewhere around there.”
Ideally, this hunting season would see 1,400 elk harvested from the Gravelly complex, so the population remains under 9,600.
Both Waltee’s check station in Alder, and Cunningham’s, which is in Cameron, have seen a decline in hunter participation.
Over the course of the third weekend of the season, Nov. 5 and 6, hunters checked 14 elk through the Cameron station, and 13 through the Alder station. In the third weekend of the 2015 season, the Cameron station saw 94 elk.
“Success rates seem low compared to last year’s record setting third weekend harvest, but elk and white-tailed deer harvest was very comparable to 2009 through 2014,” Cunningham reported. “The harvest success rate was on the low side of average, as would be expected given the warm and dry conditions.”
“We are not looking at season extensions in this part of the world,” Waltee reported.
In Southwest Montana FWP instated two-week season extensions in 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008, Waltee explained.
“The years were much like this,” he said. “But the difference was that we were above objective (with the elk population) at the start of the hunting season, so the goal was getting the elk back to objective, which is hard to do in a mild year.”
However, weather never materialized in three of the four extension years.
“What we learned is that if you don’t get the weather to facilitate elk bunching up and becoming easier to find, they don’t move to accessible locations,” Waltee said. “We try to avoid an extension – it’s time consuming, and sometimes it brings a gold rush mentality. It attracts a lot of hunters who are naïve to the area, which pushes a lot of people on the ground.”
Despite the warm weather and lower success rate compared to last year, Waltee said hunter morale and attitude remains high.
“They realize it’s just tough weather,” he said. “Elk hunting in this country depends on snow. It’s hard to find them (without weather).”
Madison County’s primary game wardens, Ryan Picken and Shane Brozovich, both reported this general rifle season as being relatively quiet in relation to violations.
“It’s in the 60s and November, so the elk haven’t been pushed down to where people see them,” Picken explained. People are doing a good job of following the law and asking for permission on private property. Or signing in when doing block management.”
Brozovich, who covers primarily the Madison Valley, said the same – he reported very few trespass issues.
“The biggest thing (I’ve) dealt with is spikes,” he said. “I am up to six spikes now; all of them were self reported.”
Picken agreed, saying he has dealt with four illegal spike bull harvests where the hunter has turned himself or herself in.
“They were all long shots,” Picken said. “It’s tough to tell from 500 yards or 600 yards if it’s a cow or if it has a little antler.”
Brozovich said hunters sometimes get excited and fail to identify their target. The citation is a $135 ticket, and the elk is confiscated and donated to a food bank.
“That’s their elk for the year, so they don’t have a tag to shoot another,” Brozovich said.
In addition, a few people hunting in Madison County have been cited for shooting from a roadway. During the 2015 session, the legislature clarified that if someone is convicted of the crime of shooting from a vehicle or roadway or harassing game animals with a vehicle, they lose hunting, fishing and trapping privileges for a minimum of two years.
“The fine itself isn’t a big thing, but losing hunting, fishing and trapping privileges,” Brozovich said. “It’s a significant violation.”
Picken reported hearing of 15 to 19 wolves in a pack in the Upper Ruby. In fact, he and his wife were hunting and came upon a pack.
“The wolf population is thriving,” he said. “Numerous hunting parties and guides have spotted them up the Ruby River. I see them on patrol.”
Picken recommends hunters purchase wolf tags, because there is always a chance of taking a shot at one. In fact, this year, he harvested his first wolf.
Though wolves are starting to migrate out of the mountains to the benches and toward towns, Picken said they keep their distance from humans. On the other hand, some other predators pose more of a concern.
“I’ve been chasing a mountain lion (around Alder) since mid-October,” he said. “First a highway patrolman was filling gas (in Alder) and the lion walked across the road. Then I heard about it sitting in front of the post office and peeking into the market.”
Picken also received a report from a resident who lives behind the bar in town – he saw the mountain lion perched on his trailer.
“They are hard to track down,” he said. “They’re an elusive creature. I have instructions to remove it if it’s spotted.”
Cat sightings pose a threat, Picken said.
“They will go after domestic pets,” he said. “On occasion, we will hear about altercations with humans.”