By JOLEEN TADEJ
These are good times for elk hunters as Montana elk populations continue to be strong across most of the state.
In some areas of western Montana, where populations have declined, wildlife biologists have recently observed increased recruitment of calves.
In many hunting districts, however, access to private lands can be difficult, which can affect hunting success given landownership patterns and distribution of elk.
Montana’s archery season for elk will close Oct. 18. The general, five-week long, elk-hunting season runs Oct. 24 through Nov. 29.
Even if you didn’t draw a special permit this year, remember Montana offers numerous opportunities to hunt for elk with just a general hunting license.
Depending on the hunting district regulations hunters can pursue brow-tined bull elk, spike bull elk, either-sex elk, or antlerless elk. For more information on elk hunting in Montana, visit FWP’s website at fwp.mt.gov, click “Hunting” then click Plan Your Hunt.
FWP wildlife biologists and game wardens will be operating hunter check-stations throughout the state to collect biological information and ensure regulations are followed. All hunters are required to stop at check stations.
Here’s a regional rundown on what elk hunters can expect this season.
Region 1—Northwestern Montana
- Several mild winters have helped with elk calf survival and recruitment. Elk populations in many areas in northwestern Montana, where steep terrain and heavy forest cover pose considerable challenges to hunters, are stable to increasing. Elk numbers in “backcountry” hunting districts 150 and 151 appear to be holding steady. Elk numbers in the lower Clark Fork area, the region’s best elk producer, continue recent favorable trends with good calf numbers recorded during spring surveys and should provide good hunting opportunities for the 2015 season.
Region 2—Western Montana
- Elk numbers are generally above the long-term average, with notably lower levels on public lands located west of Missoula and south through the Bitterroot Mountains. A special permit is required to hunt bull elk in hunting districts 250 and 270, the Upper Bitterroot, to allow bull numbers to rebound, and in the northwest quarter of hunting district 212 to help encourage elk to redistribute from private ranches to public land. The boundaries between hunting districts 240, 250 and 270 were changed in 2014 to reflect elk movement patterns documented in the Bitterroot Elk Study.
Region 3—Southwestern Montana
- Hunting opportunities are good for those interested in hunting away from open roads with better opportunities in the Gravelly Elk Management Unit (hunting districts 322, 323, 324, 325, 326, 327, and 330) versus the Tobacco Root EMU (hunting districts 320 and 333). In those areas, hunting near roads will produce hit and miss harvest opportunities and hunter congestion, especially during the first two full weeks of the general rifle season, should be expected. This will undoubtedly be the case in the upper Ruby and Blacktail portions of the Gravelly EMU. Both elk management units experienced a 30-percent gain in hunter-participation during the 2014 seasons relative to 2009-2013. Snowfall will play a significant role in harvest success. Meanwhile, elk populations are stable in the Helena area with higher elk counts reported for some areas this past winter. In the Highlands, Whitetail and Bull mountains, elk are slightly above the population average, hence the nine-day cow season. In the Dillon area, populations are increasing following two mild winters and good summer growing conditions. Hunters should anticipate high hunting pressure during the first two weeks of the season. Elk are above objective in the Bridgers, and within objective in the upper Madison, Spanish Peaks, and lower Gallatin. Elk numbers are below objective in the upper Gallatin Canyon and portions of the Madison. Elk numbers are mixed in the Shields (hunting district393), and the district is almost entirely private land and it can be difficult to obtain access. Hunters need to be grizzly bear aware across all of southwestern Montana.
Region 4—Central Montana
- Elk populations are in fine shape. The challenge for hunters in areas along the Rocky Mountain Front, central Montana’s island mountain ranges, or in the Missouri River Breaks will be obtaining access.
Region 5 — South Central Montana
- Elk numbers along the Beartooth Face and in the Crazy Mountains, Big Snowy Mountains, Bull Mountains and southeastern Belt Mountains remain near all-time highs. Surveys show a trend toward more elk and a higher ratio of bulls in half of the areas counted this spring. Most elk in south central Montana are restricted to private land where access is difficult. Hunters throughout much of the region continue to enjoy liberal elk hunting regulations, which likely will mean a harvest similar to last year’s record numbers.
Region 6—Northeastern Montana
- Elk numbers remain at or above management objectives in most hunting districts. All elk hunting in the Bears Paw Mountains and the Missouri River Breaks is by special permits awarded via the annual drawing. Elk in these areas are most often found in core-habitat areas a mile or more from active roads and other human activity. Elk densities are lower in the general-season hunting area north of U.S. Highway 2.
Region 7—Southeastern Montana
- When hunters think of classic elk hunting country, the plains of southeastern Montana seldom come to mind. And yet there is the region’s storied Missouri Breaks, where elk numbers continue to increase beyond FWP’s management objectives in all hunting districts. Outside of the Missouri Breaks and the Custer National Forest, elk are primarily found on private land where public hunting access is limited.While special-permit only opportunities can be found in hunting district 700 for either-sex and antlerless elk, there is general license hunting for either-sex elk in hunting districts 701 and 703. Also, in hunting districts 702,704 and 705, there are either-sex opportunities by special permit and antlerless hunting within the Custer National Forest boundaries by special permit only. Outside forest boundaries antlerless elk can be hunted on a general license.