Elk Hunting in Montana: A Bit of History

By BRUCE AUCHLY of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks

Didn’t get your elk? It may have been from lack of effort on your part, or simply bad luck. With very few exceptions, not getting your elk when elk hunting in Montana isn’t due to too few elk.

Montana has no overall shortage of elk. While exact figures are never known, there may be as many as 150,000 elk heading into the fall hunting season. That’s probably a drop in the frying pan compared to pre-settlement numbers, but it’s an incredible rebound from just a century ago.

One estimate places 10 million elk roaming all of North America before European settlement. Compare that with a guess of 50,000 elk on this continent 100 years ago.

In Montana at, say, the time of Lewis and Clark, there were almost certainly more elk than now. That’s because the vast open prairies of grass, cottonwood bottoms, and badlands made eastern and central parts of pre-statehood Montana a paradise for game animals. The heavily-timbered country of western Montana, by comparison, was poor in game numbers. Elk were present but not in numbers found on the prairie.

Bull elk. Photo by Kristi Dubois,FWP.

Then came European settlers, and Montana’s game animal populations started to decline. By the early 1900s, only small herds of elk ranged around Yellowstone National park, along the Continental Divide, and a few other mountainous areas.

In 1910, less than 5,000 elk were scattered over 25,000 square miles in northwestern Montana, according to the book, “Back from the Brink.” And in most of eastern Montana elk were completely gone.

That’s when transplanting elk began from close to, and eventually from within, Yellowstone National Park. The first effort moved elk from Gardiner to the Butte area. It proved so successful and popular that sportsmen and landowners in other parts of the state wanted to reestablish elk herds.

Within 10 years, elk were transplanted to the Highwood Mountains east of Great Falls, then to the Little Belt Mountains in 1928, the Big Belt and Judith mountains in 1935, and the Missouri Breaks in 1951. General elk trapping and transplanting stopped in 1972. It just wasn’t needed.

Now it’s a matter of social tolerance, of trying to balance the needs and wants of sportsmen with agricultural interests. Montana’s landscape could support many more elk today than the current 150,000 or so. But how many? How many elk do we want or will we tolerate?

Hunters who didn’t get an elk this year may believe more is better. Landowners who would have to host more wildlife might say, no thanks, less is just fine. Maybe both sides just need to cooperate and help manage the animals we have.

After all, from a closed elk hunting season in 1893 because there were too few animals, we now have a population of maybe 150,000, thanks to landowners and sportsmen who worked together to increase elk numbers.

Fortunately, elk hunting in Montana is a great sport — whether you get your elk or not.

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For more posts about hunting around Missoula and Western Montana, visit the Make it Missoula hunting archive or the Wild Open Spaces blog.