Four wildlife management areas in southwest Montana will open late due to the cold spring and continued need for winter range for elk herds.
In the Madison Valley, both Wall Creek and Bear Creek Wildlife Management Areas will open late. The Gallatin WMA near Big Sky and the Dome Mountain WMA in the Paradise Valley are also affected by the delay.
All four WMAs were due to open May 1, but with the cold spring, the grass in the surrounding hills and mountains are still buried in snow and elk herds will likely move onto surrounding private land if they are pushed off the WMAs by the public, said Neil Anderson, acting regional wildlife manage for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks out of Bozeman.
“This time of year, elk are using those wildlife management areas pretty heavily,” Anderson said. “We’re trying not to put undo stress on some animals that went through a pretty tough winter.”
Agency officials decided to push back the opening until noon on May 15.
“We’re hoping by then, even though it’s not been the warmest weather, that things will clear off,” he said.
The four WMAs are closed during the winter to allow wintering animals to utilize the area without disturbance.
Once they open in the spring, the early use is predominantly from antler hunters, who search for antlers shed from animals over the winter, said Ennis FWP game warden Ryan Gosse.
“The majority of the people that are there for the opener are all antler hunters,” he said.
Along with antler hunters, the game ranges get some pressure from a variety of other recreationists, including gopher and bear hunters.
This year elk numbers seem to be up in the Madison Valley, including those on the game ranges, Gosse said.
In March FWP biologists counted about 4,300 elk, which is slightly up from last year’s count of about 4,200, he said.
Ground counts out at Wall Creek conducted recently found about 1,700 elk using the WMA, Anderson said.
Trespassing on a closed WMA is considered criminal trespassing and carries a fine and penalty of up to $500 and six months in jail, plus loss of hunting, fishing and trapping privileges up to two years, Gosse said.