By Thomas Baumeister - December 19, 2019 - Originally published in the Missoulian
Montana has a lot of elk — 134,557, to be more precise. Elk are part of our state’s identity and we’re better for it. Yet, according to the Elk Management Plan put forth by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, this is 42,419 elk too many.
Pressured by landowners and legal mandates to drive elk numbers down, FWP created additional hunting seasons called elk shoulder seasons (ESSs). ESSs occur outside of the traditional hunting seasons in September through November and are designed to harvest cow elk in areas that are above objectives, according to the plan. ESSs begin as early as August and run as late as mid-February.
Many hunters feel that killing elk for up to six months is cruel and unethical. FWP has been quick to acknowledge their dilemma — on one hand, the directive to harvest more elk, and on the other to uphold hunting ethics. FWP is committed to evaluating their three-year ESSs pilot project, and the results are now in.
A net increase of 4,559 cow elk were taken compared to the preceding five years with no ESSs. This looks like success, but it’s really just a drop in the bucket. At this rate, the statewide elk population goal won’t be reached until 2050.
A closer look reveals that during the 10 weeks of general hunting (September–November) hunters harvested 9,852 cow elk, compared to 6,521 killed during the additional 10 weeks of ESSs. Given that ESSs are designed specifically to harvest cow elk and occur at a time of year when weather conditions favor hunters, the performance is much lower than anticipated.
Furthermore, ESSs didn’t perform well in the areas with the most elk. Instead, ESSs performed better in areas with fewer elk that are already subject to considerable harvest during the regular seasons. Thus, ESSs did not solve the problem of overpopulation, and in some cases even compounded it by driving elk to inaccessible private land.
Without access to elk, offering a six-month hunting season does little to achieve the desired harvest. The largest concentrations of elk occur on private land, especially in the central Montana region comprised of large ranches, often with little or no public hunting access.
We know what is not working. But we don’t yet know what will work. At best, the data indicate that without additional opportunities to access elk herds on private land, public hunting will remain largely ineffective in spite of generous hunting seasons and elk licenses. We need a diversity of users to come together to think creatively about solutions that recognize the intricate web of private property rights, public elk, elk behavior, hunting traditions and effectiveness, and other interrelated factors.
This is about more than just sound elk management; it’s about how we relate to and treat elk. Not only are ESSs ineffective and viewed by some as unethical, they are also emblematic of a larger societal trend whereby, in the face of a faltering ability to manage, a once revered species is being relegated to vermin. What does this say about us?
It’s time to dig deep and think outside of the box.
If you have ideas, please let FWP and the FWP Commission know. They’d like to hear from you: http://fwp.mt.gov/hunting/.
Thomas Baumeister is the Capital Chapter leader of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, and a fellow with Merlin CCC in Helena.