Shoulder seasons not meant for public lands

Tom Puchlerz
Thursday, July 22, 2021

In Montana private land elk hunting is moving toward 11 weeks for people who can pay thousands of dollars for trophy bulls, while others are left to hunt cows in deep snows and bitter cold when they’re struggling to survive the winter.

That’s the proposal of the Gianforte administration, one that extends “elk shoulder seasons” through Feb 15 annually, and onto your National Forest in 19 hunting districts. This proposal is ill conceived, premature and not in the interest of elk hunters, landowners and all Montanans who enjoy this incredible creature.

When Montana hunters agreed to the trial implementation of shoulder seasons six years ago, they did so on the premise they would be a temporary action to reduce elk numbers to population objectives and to improve distribution of elk. It was hoped that the shoulder seasons would open up more private land during the general season, moving elk off private and onto public lands. They were not meant to replace general season harvest.

In fact, one of the performance criteria for having a shoulder season was getting a minimum of 50 percent of the annual harvest during the archery and general season. Is this information being collected, is it available, is it being considered? No information as to how the current shoulder seasons are performing is being provided to Montanans, yet they are being asked to comment on this proposal.

Elk population objectives for hunting districts throughout the state were established more than 16 years ago and have yet to be adjusted. During that period much has changed regarding landownership, landowner tolerance, elk numbers and habitat conditions. In the hunting districts where the changes are being proposed hunter access is heavily restricted to those willing to pay, in those instances our public elk have become a financial commodity to outfitters and landowners. When those objectives were originally established it was primarily one of landowners trying to balance their livestock operations with public elk use.

Finally, elk are incredibly mobile and move across the landscape without regard to landownership, finding secure locations where hunter pressure is limited. Opening of National Forest lands to shoulder season hunting will compound the problem private landowners have by pushing elk back onto private lands. It would be best to stay with localized solutions such as game damage hunts to unacceptably high elk numbers, and not district-wide solutions.

While the problem is complex and divisive, solutions are within reach. That includes the Elk Management Plan that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is preparing. The planning process is well under way with a citizens advisory group providing basic objectives and guidelines that the Fish and Wildlife Commission has already approved.

So, what’s the rush to extend elk seasons and expand them to National Forest lands? While the Gianforte administration says it is responding to concerns, it appears to be hearing from a limited group and tailoring elk management around those wanting to profit off our public wildlife.

Montana hunters need to push back. We’re watching our decades-old tradition of fair chase hunting and cooperation between Montanans disintegrate. If this is the new way of doing business in Montana, our state will never look the same for public hunters, both residents and non-residents.

Contact the Fish and Wildlife Commission by emailing them at fwcomm@mt.gov and tell them to look out for our public wildlife, public hunters and Montanans fair chase hunting traditions first, and reject these late season public land elk hunts.

(Tom Puchlerz is a retired wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. He serves as board president of the Montana Wildlife Federation.)

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