The Madison Valley Elk Working Group spent all day Thursday working on a consensus agreement for an elk hunting season proposal to send the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission in November.
The proposal comes as the FWP works on the gathering information on hunting season changes for 2012 and 2013.
The group, which is made up of local ranchers, representatives from regional sportsmen groups and FWP officials, has wrestled over many issues surrounding elk management over the last several years. The consensus agreement that came out of Thursday’s meeting demonstrated some give and take by everyone, said Pat Flowers, FWP Region 3 director in Bozeman.
“It’s a challenge to, in one day, to fairly work through all the interests and come up with a proposal for the next biennium that everybody can live with,” Flowers said. “I think it was an important step and it’s going to lay the ground work for the next two years.”
The proposal the group came up with was geared toward hunting districts 360 and 362, which cover all of the eastern side of the Madison Valley and the area of primarily private ranchland many know as the “flats.”
The proposal is to allow a general elk license to be valid for brow-tined bulls and have a draw for 450 antlerless elk permits that would be spread over the two hunting districts and the five-week season. The idea is the antlerless elk permits would be good for one week during the season. So there would be 50 permits for the first week of the season and then 100 for each of the remaining four weeks.
The permits will be different than the B licenses currently issued, which in some cases allow hunters to harvest two elk. The permits would allow hunters to shoot either a brow-tined bull or antlerless elk during the time the permit is valid.
Going to a permit system and spreading them out over the course of the season seemed to be a way for the group to get at a major concern everyone had – hunter behavior.
“I think the steps we’ve taken with this proposed tentative regulation for the next biennium address hunter behavior by having less cow hunters on the landscape at one time,” Flowers said.
Last year, agency officials, sportsmen and ranchers alike were disturbed by hunter behavior on the flats. Many complained at Thursdays meeting of traffic problems, safety issues with hunters shooting wildly and the unethical shooting of elk.
The proposed regulation also comes with a harvest objective of 700 to 800 elk.
Currently, the group has yet to settle on a population objective for the two hunting districts. Generally, the sportsmen’s groups would like to see elk number stay static or increase and ranchers would generally like to seem the stay the same or decrease, particularly when it comes to the late winter and spring months when elk tend to congregate on the rancher’s winter range.
In lieu of a population objective, the group focused on a harvest objective with the idea that harvesting 700 to 800 elk between hunting districts 360 and 362 would keep the population about the same size.
In an effort to get a better handle on harvest numbers, the group also asked FWP to move toward a system that requires hunters to report on whether they had been successful in harvesting an elk.
Flowers is currently working on getting some sort of reporting system in place for this year as a pilot project, he said.
Additionally, the group asked the agency to look at trapping and transporting elk off the flats and back over to the Gallatin Valley, where numbers have thinned in recent years. The idea would be to move the elk prior to calving in the hopes that they would establish a pattern of spending the late winter in spring in the Gallatin Valley, reducing the pressure on ranchland in the Madison Valley.
Vito Quatraro is president of the Headwaters Sportsmen Association and was at the meeting. He was pleased with how the group worked to a solution.
“I thought it went better than I had expected in some ways,” Quatraro said. “I was kind of surprised at the level of agreement we were able to reach.”
The success of the proposed regulation, particularly when it comes to hunter behavior, will come through education, he said. People need to understand “slob hunters” won’t be tolerated.
From the rancher’s standpoint, the success of the proposed season structure will be seen if the harvest objectives are met, said John Scully, a rancher in Jeffers.
“If the whole agreement isn’t fulfilled (in regards to) the number of elk harvested, then it won’t be a good thing for landowners,” Scully said.
If the harvest objectives aren’t met during the general season, the group agreed to look at a management hunt to reach those numbers. That will be important to ranchers, who are reluctant to see elk numbers go back up, he said.
The proposed season structure will go before the FWP Commission at their November meeting.
This year, hunters in 360 and 362 will be able to harvest a brow-tined bull or antlerless elk with their general season tag. The FWP also issued 500 B licenses good for antlerless elk on private land within the districts.