FWP, locals debate 2016 elk shoulder seasons

Ten landowners and concerned citizens gathered at the Sweet Grass County Annex Oct. 5 to discuss an impending proposal for elk shoulder hunts with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Biologist Justin Paugh. 

The department is considering these additional hunts, which could run from as early as Aug. 15, 2016, through Feb. 15, 2017, in light of extreme elk overpopulation. 

In region five, which includes Big Timber, Paugh reported there were more than 4,000 elk — over four times the objective of 975. 

Paugh said the last shoulder season in the area took place between six and 10 years ago. Shoulder seasons haven’t been utilized to control elk numbers lately due to a push by former FWP Director Joe Maurier to simplify hunting regulations.  

“We ended up loosing a lot of our flexibility to do different things,” Paugh said. “We also lost our late hunts that we had at that time. Most of them went for two weeks in the middle of December.”

Currently, the only options for hunting outside of the regular season are game damage hunts, which are offered exclusively to landowners who permit extensive public hunting access. 

Paugh hopes the early shoulder season would help reduce game damage.

“... in late August, fields are getting ripe, things are drying out, the elk are coming down — we hope that we could alleviate some of that as well as push some of those elk back onto public land,” Paugh said.  

To stabilize the elk population in region five, Paugh said hunters would need to double the current harvest, which was roughly 350 last year. Stabilizing the elk would mean 700 harvested, and to reduce the numbers, that harvest would have to be even greater.

If the proposal and shoulder seasons are approved by the commission, the shoulder seasons would also have to meet harvest criteria — in other words, elk numbers would need to drop as a result of the additional seasons. 

Now, FWP is looking at the possibility of reintroducing shoulder hunts in order to get region five’s elk population down to a manageable level.  

Paugh said no changes are in the works for this season, which opened Sept. 5 for archery and will open Oct. 24 for general rifle. 

“We have a four-year evaluation period where we’ll be watching it, and if we’re not meeting that harvest criteria, then we are supposed to come back and propose to the commission to remove these shoulder seasons and recommend something different,” Paugh said. 

The shoulder season proposal received more than 1,100 comments from the public and will go before the five-member Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission today, Oct. 8. The proposal includes options for amending the 2016 hunting season and, if approved, will serve as a guideline for making an official season change proposal.

“Right now it’s basically a whole list of season-setting options that would be available to us but have not been officially approved by the commission,” Paugh said. “There’s a lot of opposition out there to this, coming both from sportsmen and from landowners.” 

Story and photos by Mackenzie Reiss / Pioneer Staff Writer

For more on area landowners suggestions for solving the elk population issue and the final concensus of the participants, pick up a copy of the Oct. 8 edition of the Pioneer or subscribe to our e-edition. Current subscribers are provided access to the e-edition at no additional charge.