Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is collecting comments from hunters about proposed changes to big game regulations for the 2012-2013 hunting seasons.
Officials from the agency were in Ennis Thursday night to talk to local hunters.
“This is our chance to hear from you specifically on things that I think matter to a lot of sportsmen,” FWP region 3 director Pat Flowers told a group of 11 hunters who gathered at the Ennis Fire Hall for the evening meeting.
Central to changes to big game seasons in region 3 is a proposal developed by the Madison Valley Elk Working Group this past fall.
The working group is comprised of sportsmen, ranchers and FWP officials and has been meeting is some capacity for several years. The group has been instrumental in changes to the elk seasons in hunting districts 360 and 362, which encompass the Madison Valley, east of the Madison River.
The group’s proposal for the next two years is to change the regulations to brow-tine bulls only with a general season elk tag in 360 and 362. In addition, there will be 450 antlerless elk tags available through a drawing. The tags will be valid for a specific week during the five-week general elk season.
The proposal calls for issuing 50 antlerless tags for the first week of the season and then 100 tags for each of the four remaining weeks. These tags will be good for both public and private land within both hunting districts. Applicants will be able to apply for a specific week. Applications from both hunting districts 360 and 362 will be combined for the drawing and the tags will be valid in both districts.
Hunters who draw the antlerless tag in 360 and 362 will not be able to shoot two elk within the two districts. If they shoot a brow-tined bull in either district, then their antlerless tag is void. If they shoot an antlerless elk with their special tag, then they must go outside the two districts to fill their general season tag, officials explained at the meeting.
Ennis resident John Knapton was curious about the Madison Valley Elk Working Group and how they developed the proposal.
“Are their meetings advertised at all?” Knapton asked.
The meetings aren’t advertised, but there isn’t any intention of excluding the general public, Flowers said. The group’s meetings are often mediated and the intention is to make any recommendations to the FWP Commission on a consensus basis. The current season proposal is one such example.
“This was a consensus, unanimous endorsement from that group,” Flowers said.
The idea behind the proposal and spreading tags out over the entire season was to attempt to address hunter behavior on the open flats south of Ennis, said Julie Cunningham, FWP biologist for the Madison Valley.
Every year landowners and sportsmen complain of reckless behavior by people hunting elk on the flats, Cunningham said. By spreading the tags out a bit, the agency and the working group hope such conflicts are avoided.
The proposal received few comments, but those who did speak up were concerned about limited opportunity.
“There are a lot of folks in the Madison Valley who rely on the cow elk opportunity,” Knapton said.
Sandi Bourgeois was also concerned that by limiting the dates the antlerless tags were available might mean less opportunity for some of the successful applicants.
“Antlerless opportunities are all so weather related,” Bourgeois said.
Tag holders early in the season may have little opportunity to be successful, she said.
Cunningham also commented on the relationship between wolves and elk in the Madison Valley and other parts of the state.
There’s no doubt wolves have had an impact on elk numbers in some areas, she said, specifically referencing portions of the Bitterroot Valley and Gallatin Canyon. In those areas, antlerless elk tags are no longer issued at all.
The proposal in the Madison Valley scales back on the elk harvest before there’s much of a problem with elk numbers.
“We can always get more liberal,” Cunningham said. “It’s really hard to bring them back.”
Taking care to ensure a healthy elk population was crucial, said Ennis resident Joe Dilschneider.
“Everyone wants there to be a healthy elk herd,” Dilschneider said.
Other elk discussion centered on population projections for the Gravelly Mountain complex of hunting districts. The FWP biologist for that region wasn’t at the meeting, but Ennis resident Shawn Graef was frustrated with the elk counts coming from that region.
The latest numbers Graef has heard is that about 10,000 elk reside in the expansive Gravelly Mountain region.
“Those numbers are flawed,” said Graef, who works on the Beaverhead National Forest as a law enforcement officer. “The public as a whole gets pretty disheartened with fish and game when they hear that.”
The Gravelly Mountains surrounding area is the territory Graef covers as an officer and while the elk numbers seem to be holding steady, they aren’t as inflated as the elk counts would indicate, he said.
FWP officials couldn’t confirm those numbers Thursday night, but Flowers said he’s heard similar frustration with the elk counts in that area. However, he takes a pretty cautious tact when questioning counts. The biologists that count elk are trained for the task and though people may question their numbers, his experience is that they are generally pretty close.
FWP officials also made a special point to emphasize that applications for bull or either sex elk tags along with buck tags are due by March 15 this year. Applications for antlerless elk and deer tags are due June 1.
Comments on the big game season proposals are due by Jan. 23. Comments can be made online at fwp.mt.gov or by mailing them to FWP office in Helena: FWP Wildlife Bureau, Attn: Public Comment, PO Box 200701, Helena MT 59620-0701. Copies of the proposed changes are also available online or at the region 3 office in Helena.
The next public meeting to discuss the changes will be this Thursday – Jan. 12 – in Dillon at the Search and Rescue building at 7 p.m. For more information, call the FWP office in Bozeman at 994-4042.