Red Rocks refuge offers new big game hunting opportunities

Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge will have new opportunities for big game hunters this fall in an effort to help more evenly distribute elk around the refuge.

The plan is to offer access permits to two hunters a day to a specific area of the refuge frequented by elk in the fall and winter, said refuge manager Bill West.

Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge is located in the Centennial Valley in far southwest Montana. It’s one on the most important nesting areas for trumpeter swans and provides nesting habitat for a variety of waterfowl. The refuge is also host to moose, elk, antelope and deer. Hunting has always been allowed on portions of the refuge and closed on others, West said.

About 10 years ago, elk started to congregate on the northern side of the refuge about a week before the opening of general rifle season, he said. The elk herd, which at times would number upwards of 500 animals, would generally stay there through hunting season.

The herd of elk didn’t cause any real resource damage, but with the problem of brucellosis in elk in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, West figured it would be better to try and find ways to get those animals to split up into smaller herds where they would be less likely to transmit the disease to each other.

“They found a place on the refuge closed to hunting and stayed there,” he said.

In 2009, the refuge went through a comprehensive conservation planning process, which discussed opening a bit more of the refuge to hunting to take advantage of lands the refuge had recently acquired and to make the hunting area boundaries clearer, West said.

With that expansion of hunting came the opportunity to address the elk issue.

Also the effort to provide more elk hunting would also help Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks manage numbers in a growing elk herd in the Gravelly and Snow Crest Mountains, he said.

The plan developed will allow hunters to enter a lottery for a permit to access some of the big game hunting portions of the refuge. Permit applications will be accepted until the end of August and the drawing will be held Sept. 4. Under the plan only two hunters a day will be allowed to access the permit only sections of the refuge.

The primary idea is to get hunters to use the permits to access the elk herd, but it will take work, West said. The elk herd typically stays in an area without much cover and so hunters will have to put on a long stalk to get within range.

“They’re going to have to stalk and we hope it will just move the elk around and maybe break them up into smaller groups,” he said. “We’re not trying to drive them completely off the refuge but we’re just trying to break them up into different groups.”

The permit only sections will be open from Nov. 1 through the end of general big game season, West said.

The main reason for limiting the time for hunting the permit only sections is to provide more time for other refuge users including wildlife viewers.

“We’ve tried to make a plan that breaks things up, separates people in time and space,” he said.

Though some people have been opposed to opening more of the refuge to hunting, West said hunting is an important part of what wildlife refuges offer.

Wildlife refuges are mandated to offer six categories of opportunities to the public: hunting, fishing, wildlife view, wildlife photography, environmental education and wildlife interpretation, he said.

For more information on the permits and hunting on Red Rock National Wildlife Refuge, go to their website at fws.gov/redrocks.

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