Hunting season in Montana, and particularly in Southwest Montana, is unlike anything else. With one of the longest hunting seasons in the west, healthy wildlife populations and access to millions of acres of public land, it is not just wildlife migrating west.
But how many out of county and out of state hunters are migrating to our beloved Madison and Ruby valleys, and at what cost?
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks accumulated $324 million in statewide hunter expenditures in 2016. This data is compiled from money spent on transportation, food, beverages, lodging and equipment purchased, not including hunting license or durable goods. According to this formula, Madison County took in just over $23 million in hunter expenditures in 2016.
So why is it people flock to our valleys?
Influx to the Ruby
Montana FWP wildlife biologist Dean Waltee is stationed in the Ruby Valley and said hunter numbers in the Gravelly and Tobacco Root areas are trending up.
“In my opinion, this has been influenced by several factors,” he said. “One, increased general license opportunity to harvest antlerless elk, two, hunting magazine and online publications indicating to hunters that Southwest Montana is the place to be, and three, restrictive elk harvest opportunities across western Montana.”
Waltee said the trend has not returned to peak participation observed from 1995-2004, but numbers in the Ruby Valley are still rising. According to data collected by Waltee during hunter checks, 31 percent are Madison County residents and 11 percent are out of state hunters. However, on the Ruby side, Waltee reported the biggest percentages of hunters are Montana residents outside of Madison County at 58 percent.
“During the final weekend of 2016 general hunting season, I detected a 300 percent increase relative to average of hunters coming from Gallatin County,” said Waltee. “I suspect this will become a trend as Bozeman and Belgrade continue to grow.”
Waltee said this trend could also be in response to hunting districts around Gardiner moving to limited permit elk hunting toward the end of the 2016 season.
“That change would have displaced about 1,000 elk hunters to other areas,” he said.
Madison County a hot spot?
Montana FWP put together an interactive map on their website titled “The Economics of Big Game Hunting in Montana,” which shows hunting districts throughout the state and their relative elk, deer and antelope expenditures. Within each specific species category, Madison County ranks on the high end.
“The overall map shows several counties across Southwest Montana, including Madison County, as equally attractive,” said Waltee, adding Madison County is a “hot spot” for each individual species.
Concluding Madison County as a hot spot can hold various meanings, according to Waltee. An abundance of wildlife is nothing short of a testament to the management of the land and its occupants.
“In the long term, hunters continuing to be attracted to the area suggests they are finding healthy wildlife populations and access,” said Waltee. “This is a testament to maintaining healthy wildlife habits, which reflects on public and private land managers and maintaining wildlife populations within their biological limits through time – generally good conservation indicators.”
The short term indicator of an active hunting area like Madison County could also mean a lack of other options for hunters or rapid human growth flooding previously good hunting areas.
“It facilitates the question of can wildlife populations sustain the number of hunters coming to an area?” said Waltee.
This land is your land
While high hunter populations in one area can put a lot of added stress and strain on local landowners, city governments and public and private land managers, it is generally a positive for local businesses.
“High hunter numbers are great for, and generally supported by, small businesses,” said Waltee. “However, local hunters generally oppose high, non-local hunting pressure and are forced with the decision to restrict opportunity, which includes themselves or be able to hunt locally annually.”
Because of more out of county and out of state hunters Waltee said he sees hunters camping in the field rather than making day trips, which are seemingly impossible for those visiting from out of town.
“I also see heavy use of local lodging and dining options,” said Waltee.
Laurie Stiffler co-owns a restaurant, bar and hotel in Alder and said their business relies heavily on hunter traffic.
“It’s a huge impact,” she said of the dollars hunting season brings to her businesses. “It carries on the whole tourist season that heavily – it books our motel, fills our restaurant and bar, just like the tourist season does.”
Stiffler said she hears no complaints about an excess of hunters in the area or complaints of locals competing with out of towners.
“The only complaint is that there are too many people trying to block off access,” Stiffler said.
The Ennis community celebrates the beginning of general rifle season with their annual Hunters’ Feed extravaganza before opening day. The event is a chance for area hunters to “clean out their freezers” before their next haul, as well as give local businesses a chance to thrive on the excess of people in town.
Abi King with the Ennis Chamber of Commerce has yet to experience her first Hunters’ Feed in her capacity with the chamber, but on a personal level, feels the event helps the Ennis business community.
“My understanding is that (Hunters’ Feed) is a celebration of the hunting season,” she said. “I think hunting season is a heavy interest around the area and brings a lot to the community.”
According to the release from Montana FWP, Madison County is once again predicted to be an elk hunter’s paradise. Enthusiastic elk and deer hunters can seek out healthy populations in the Ruby and Madison valleys for the general season from Oct. 21 – Nov. 26. Archery season is already underway and draws to a close on Oct. 15.
Antelope season for archery hunters is also open until Oct. 6. General antelope season opens Oct. 7 – Nov. 12.
For a full list of big game hunting seasons visit www.fwp.mt.gov, and as always, be sure to check for restrictions and closures. To report poachers, call 1-800-TIP-MONT.