FWP's elk advisory group deserves our thanks for their sincere, well-intended efforts to improve elk management in Montana.
On July 7th, members forwarded a recommendation to 'pick your season/weapon.’ While we agree with the intent of this proposal (reducing hunting pressure on public lands), and we acknowledge that this is likely inevitable if Montana continues to grow in population and access to inaccessible elk isn't improved (and hunters fail to show up when it matters), we don't think we're there yet, and we encourage FWP to adopt other ways to address crowding before this last resort is considered.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
1) FWP just made sweeping changes to elk hunting and tag allocations in Montana that haven't even gone into effect yet. Specifically, the new 'pick your district' for elk hunters serves the same purpose as a 'pick your season/weapon' would, to help spread out pressure on public lands. Let’s try this first.
2) While public lands pressure is certainly part of the equation, the fact remains that FWP is being sued for having too many elk (something we disagree with to the point of trying to intervene in the lawsuit - learn more at KeepElkPublic.org). So if there's apparently too many elk in Montana, and there's no shortage of hunters, wouldn't it make more sense to focus on connecting those dots rather than further limiting hunting opportunities by forcing hunters to pick a weapon/season?
3) When elk sense pressure, they run to cover (often this means unpressured private lands). Elk don't know if we’re hunting upland birds, mountain grouse, looking for a fall bear, a buck or a doe, or hold a widely available cow B tag, which are now unlimited in many districts - even for non-residents - some valid on public lands, and some six months per year. When we talk about pressure on public lands, we need to look more broadly than just bull elk hunters. For starters, we suggest limiting non-residents to the 90/10 split for all hunting opportunities, not just buck and bulls. But even there, last year, far more than 10% of deer and elk licenses were sold to non-residents. Come to find out, this number was even higher than we previously thought: 66,624 deer and elk licenses went to non-residents, according to FWP's reporting for 2021.
4) It’s debatable on whether this change will even have the desired impact of reducing public hunting pressure. For one, if hunters are forced to pick a weapon/season, they'll just hunt during that season even more. In other words, if someone has two weeks vacation to hunt elk, instead of hunting for a week in archery and a week in rifle, they'll just hunt two weeks in one of them; that's not a reduction in hunting pressure, and there are plenty of Western states with shorter pick-your-weapon seasons to point to that illustrate this point. And if numerous rifle B tags remain available regardless, then this will do little to alleviate the number of hunters on public lands; unsuccessful archery hunters will just get a rifle B tag. In the Breaks units, it's essentially pick your season/weapon already; has that solved public land hunting pressure there?
5) In limited-entry permit areas where increased harvests are needed, we suggest bull permits be delivered as a combo with an additional automatic cow B tag applied; this could lead to greater harvests without adding pressure. FWP has done this (and continues to do this in some areas) with antelope hunters, so why not elk?
6) And finally, the biggest elephant in the room is this: FWP's elk management plan states: “to avoid over-harvest of accessible elk on public lands or private lands open to hunting, the inaccessible elk may not be included in objective numbers." Yet they continue to include these leading to inflated numbers of tags and six months of hunting. If FWP managed for the actual number of accessible elk, that would improve the issue dramatically.
While the elk advisory group is suggesting some wise and productive changes re: shoulder seasons, the hunt roster, improving hunter behavior (thereby creating more - or protecting existing - opportunities to hunt private), new approaches to block management and utilizing local elk working groups to find regional solutions, this pick-your-weapon/season would drastically reduce opportunity and there are other more effective and palatable ways to address crowding.
We look forward to continuing to work with the elk advisory group to find solutions, and encourage you to pay attention and get involved as well.