Big game general season in Montana came to an end Sunday and in the Madison Valley, hunters struggled to find the success they’d had in recent years.
Good elk hunting typically means nasty, snowy weather and this fall’s mild weather likely kept hunting success down, said Andrea Jones, spokeswoman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
In total, about 2,500 hunters came through the game check station in Cameron, which was open Saturdays and Sundays throughout the general season. Hunters had a success rate of 7.6 percent, down from last year’s success rate of 14.5 percent.
Though mule deer and whitetail deer numbers were comparable to years past, the number of elk brought through the check station this season marked a five-year low of 123. This was less than half the number of elk last year, when hunters checked 318 elk through the Cameron check station.
At a September meeting, the Madison Valley Elk Working Group, which includes FWP officials, local landowners and area sportsmen, discussed the coming season and harvest objectives for elk.
Pat Flowers, FWP director for region 3 in Bozeman, told the group he would try to implement some kind of monitoring system to more accurately and quickly track elk harvest in the Madison Valley beyond just the check station numbers, which are only a portion of elk harvested.
It’s unclear now just how much more information FWP collected beyond the check station numbers, Flowers said.
At the September meeting, the elk working group agreed to a harvest objective of between 700 and 800 elk in the Madison Valley, with the general agreement that this would keep the overall elk numbers where they were this past spring.
“I don’t think there’s any question we’re well below that (harvest) number,” said Howard Burt, FWP wildlife manager for region 3.
The FWP will use the normal statewide survey of hunters conducted each winter, to better determine harvest numbers from the general season, Burt said.
“I look at check stations more as kind of a trend, more of comparing from year to year what has happened in those areas,” he said. “We have our phone service that calls hunters and that’s where we get most of our information as far as success goes.”
Part of the plan to meet the elk harvest objectives for the Madison Valley could be elk management and game damage hunts this winter, Flowers said.
However, right now it’s still too early to know exactly when those will start, he said.
Typically, when winter snows hit the mountains around the Madison Valley, elk drop down in good numbers to winter on the mostly private rangeland south of Ennis.
When that happens, FWP begins to work with landowners and sportsmen to address elk conflicts and herd concentrations.
“Until we see that, I doubt we’ll implement anything any time soon,” Flowers said.
Some sportsmen have expressed concern that the lack of success during hunting season could mean there are fewer elk and that management and game damage hunts could make matters worse.
However, sometimes a slow hunting season can just mean the animals were less available to hunters, he said.
“It can feel uncomfortable because some people assume because we harvested fewer elk the population is way down,” Flowers said. “That’s not always true.”
Late season game damage or management elk hunts in the Madison Valley will draw hunters off the game damage roster, which was set back in July.