Hunters are going to see some of their opportunity to hunt elk in the Madison Valley reduced next year and they only have themselves to blame.
In response to poor hunter behavior during the general big game season on the private land portions of hunting districts 360 and 362, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will not be selling a second over-the-counter antlerless elk tag for those districts this coming season.
The FWP is proposing a draw for between 100 and 1,000 antlerless elk tags combined for the two districts that would only be valid on private land, said Pat Flowers, FWP Region 3 director.
The proposal was developed by the Madison Valley Elk Working Group, which includes representative from FWP, local ranchers, area sportsmen and outfitters. The idea is to try and limit some hunter opportunity to hopefully curtail the dangerous behavior many hunters and landowners saw this year on the flats, Flowers said.
Everyone agrees the weather during the last two weeks of the 2010 general big game season led to large numbers of elk moving down on to the flats, he said. As a result hunters from around the state and region converged on Madison Valley, many with two valid elk tags.
“All that led to some real concerns on our part about hunter behavior,” Flowers said.
This past season FWP wardens fielded reports about hunters shooting too many elk, chasing animals with their vehicles and shooting over and at each other.
“I think our challenge is to continue to try and educate hunters in how to behave in the face of that many elk on the flats,” he said.
Hunter behavior also was of great concern for many of the landowners in the area, said John Scully, Jeffers rancher and member of the elk working group.
“The landowners went along with the proposal (to limit antlerless tags) because of hunter conduct where people were simply shooting out into big bunches of elk and killing randomly,” Scully said.
The working group met on Jan. 5 in Ennis and voted on the proposal. Not everyone at the meeting was in favor of it, but the majority was and so Flowers took it to the FWP Commission meeting last week.
The FWP Commission gave its preliminary approval to the proposal, which is now open for public comment until Jan. 24. The commission will make its final decision on the new regulation at its February meeting.
Glenn Hockett, board member of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, voted against the proposal at the Jan. 5 meeting in Ennis. He wasn’t sure it went far enough to try and curb hunter behavior. Plus, he’s worried that elk numbers in the two districts could be way down due to the large hunter harvest this past year.
“I’m concerned we’re going to be at very, very low elk numbers overall,” Hockett said.
At the commission meeting last week, Flowers estimated that between 1,500 and 2,200 elk were killed during the big game general season in hunting district 360 and 362. This range is only a preliminary estimate derived from the FWP’s Cameron check station numbers, Flowers said.
While Hockett is concerned about elk numbers, he is also interested in working through solutions with the working group. The group voted to try limiting the second antlerless elk tag and he will support that for this coming season. He, like everyone else, is concerned about hunter behavior on the flats.
“That’s been a problem for years over there and it’s been an enforcement nightmare and, from my perspective, it’s been a real ethical challenge,” he said.
The agency won’t have a firm idea on how many elk were shot until hunter surveys are returned and tabulated this spring, Flowers said. It won’t have an idea about elk numbers until spring surveys are conducted in March or April.
“We feel like those are a more reliable indicator of total population,” he said.
The elk population in hunting districts 360 and 362 are split up into three segments, said Julie Cunningham, FWP biologist for the area.
Hunting district 360 is split into a north and south segment and hunting district 362 is taken as one population segment.
The only population objectives in place for the three segments are from the 2005 elk plan and they are largely considered tentative, Cunningham said.
In that plan the tentative population objective was within 20 percent of 4,700 elk – 1,200 in the northern 360, 1,000 in the southern 360 and 2,500 in 362.
Cunningham couched these numbers as tentative saying, “It’s widely held by landowners that those objectives are too high to suit their needs and objectives.”
Last spring Cunningham counted about 4,200 elk in the two hunting districts. However, there was some concern because it appeared about 500 elk had moved east across the Madison River from the Gravelly Range and were included in her count, she said.
Right now there’s really no way to know what the spring count will produce, she said.
A recent ground count found 2,633 elk in the two hunting districts, Cunningham said. This count was about 200 animals less than a similar count she did last year.
At this point the Madison Valley Elk Working Group hasn’t settled on population objectives, though that may be one of the topics it takes up this year.
It’s premature to have much of a conversation about elk numbers until the spring counts are done, Scully said. However, landowners are still having problems with too many elk on their winter range and FWP is currently conducting and game damage hunt to address the issue.
The landowners agreed with FWP that something needed to be done to try and address hunter behavior and so they went along with the new regulations.
“A drawing for down in the flats will hopefully correct some of the hunter issues and the way they conduct themselves,” Scully said.
Flowers is also hopeful the elk working group will look at other ways to address hunter behavior, such as designated parking areas along the Bear Creek loop road that runs from Cameron to south of Indian Creek.
The fact is FWP is always going to have to deal with both wildlife management and hunter behavior, he said. The elk hunting in Madison Valley is just a particularly difficult challenge.
“This shines a bright light on human behavior and the challenges of trying to manage people on the ground when they’re excited about elk and about trying to get one,” Flowers said.
The working group is going to have to look at population objectives and how to adjust regulations and seasons to meet those, Hockett said. He believes that tweaking some of the regulations could actually keep elk off of private land.
For instance if hunters on private land can shoot antlerless elk and hunters on public land can only shoot bulls, that may help keep the big herds of cows off of private ranchland, he said.
For ranchers the toughest part of the year is after the game damage hunts are over from February to May, Scully said. That’s when many of the elk that haven’t moved out of the mountains finally come down to private land to winter and have calves.
This creates all sorts of issues for landowners concerned about winter range for their own animals and diseases that elk might carry. Not to mention elk herds tend to be hard on fences, he said.
The working group has appointed a brown grass committee to look into ways to address this particular issue, Scully said. Hopefully the working group will find some solution to it in the coming year.
Despite the struggles to address the various interests, the Madison Valley Elk Working Group, which has been meeting for almost three years, is a big benefit to FWP, Flowers said.
When all the interest groups are at the table and willing to work on solutions, it the best possible situation for everyone involved, he said.
“I just think it’s a better approach to take to have local interests working with the department to come up with those solutions,” Flowers said.
The new proposal to have a draw for a second antlerless elk tag in hunting districts 360 and 362 is open for public comment until Jan. 24. Comments can be submitted to FWP –Wildlife Bureau, Attn: Public Comment, POB 200701, Helena, MT 59620-0701, or by going on the Web here.