The following Op-Ed was written by BHA's own Greg Munther, in partnership with Gayle Joslin of Helena Hunters and Anglers; Casey Hackathorn of Hellgate Hunters and Anglers; Skip Kowalski of the Montana Wildlife Federation; and Kathy Lloyd of the Clancy Unionville Task Force. An original version of this article can be found here.
Elk hunting is more than a hobby to Montanans. It is a way of life for many Montana elk hunters that are growing concerned about plans for managing the Helena National Forest, especially its standards for big-game habitat.
Elk hunting brings friends together, gets us outdoors, provides healthy meat for our families, and generates revenue for our economy. This is why it is hard to understand the rationale for the recent proposal to lessen the Helena National Forest’s own requirements to provide critically important elk security in the upper Blackfoot River drainage.
Practically all elk hunters use motorized vehicles to get to the woods, and then burn boot leather to get close to their prey. We all need motorized access, to a point. Hunters need access to quality habitat. But when habitat suffers, elk hunters lose opportunity and “access” becomes meaningless.
All animals, including elk, need quality habitat to provide food, water, shelter from the elements and security cover.
Elk security areas are places elk go to hide. They are portions of the forest of adequate size away from open roads that have sufficient cover to allow elk to escape the pursuit of hunters to live another day. Providing adequate security insures the necessary balance of hunter pursuit and the chance of elk escaping that allows us to have long, unrestricted elk hunting seasons.
Without enough habitat security, elk have no choice but to run to private lands that are increasingly closed to most of us resident hunters. When the “big country” is dissected with motorized traffic, elk consider it “dangerous country” and leave for the private land refuges. These private lands are increasingly open only to paid clients or wealthy landowners. Montana hunters can’t control cow elk numbers when the herds are stacked onto private lands behind “no trespassing” signs.
Biologists have done a lot of research on elk and know how to measure elk security habitat. Biologists and hunters understand that elk habitat varies across Montana – the mountain jungles of western Montana are very different from the drier, sparser timber patches intermixed with grassy openings common to the upper Blackfoot.
Yet Helena National Forest has chosen an inappropriate method of measuring elk security. Basically, they are using standards developed for the west-side jungles, not the more open parks and timber patches of the upper Blackfoot. The very elk biologists who developed those standards warn that they are being misused in the Helena National Forest.
The September archery season is increasingly popular throughout Montana. Hunters have noticed – and biologists confirm – that too much motorized traffic during the early archery season can push elk off of national forests even before the general hunting season begins. The Helena National Forest needs to respond to this concern by providing adequate security habitat, even during the archery season.
Big game needs big country. So do big-game hunters. We urge the Helena National Forest to enhance rather than diminish elk security in their portion of the Blackfoot drainage.