Also read the FAQ for the Shoulder Season Guidelines here.
Montana’s Fish & Wildlife Commission today approved new guidelines to allow elk hunting with firearms before and after the general rifle season to increase harvest and improve management in specific places.
The new “shoulder season” guidelines are in response to Governor Steve Bullock, lawmakers, hunters, landowners and others concerned that many of Montana’s 138 elk management areas exceed population objectives. In all, 80 areas are over objective, 39 are within objective, and19 are below objective.
The commission also approved for public comment a number of elk hunting shoulder season pilot projects, which would begin in late November.
“Many of our elk populations are over objective to some degree,” said Jeff Hagener, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in Helena. “It’s clear that if FWP is to manage elk to objective it will require increased elk harvests. We’ve had a very important public debate on this issue and the commission today recognized that a shoulder season can help improve elk management in Montana.”
To develop solutions to persistent over-objective problems, last fall Hagener directed about 20 FWP wildlife biologists and wardens to work through the winter to craft recommendations to increase elk harvest based on facts and their professional experience.
The guidelines that emerged supplement every elk harvest tool available to wildlife managers, including season structure adjustments; the sale and distribution of specific types of licenses and permits; game damage hunts to protect private property; and hunting season extensions.
Hagener noted that the new shoulder season guidelines demand a renewed partnership among FWP, the F&W Commission, hunters and landowners.
“Shoulder season guidelines assume that all parties are interested in fewer elk,” Hagener said. “To get there, FWP information on elk harvests needs to be accurate, efficient, and timely. The commission needs to balance social values with wildlife science and legal authority. Hunters need to be respectful and capable guests on private land. And landowners need to define and provide a level of access that matches the elk population on their properties.”
Actual shoulder seasons, if approved later by the commission, would occur outside the five-week general firearm season that typically begins in late October and ends the Sunday following Thanksgiving Day. Shoulder season hunts could then happen as early as Aug. 15 and could run no later than Feb. 15. Additionally, shoulder seasons wouldn’t be indefinite. Rather, each F&W Commission-approved shoulder season would include an end date.
The guidelines stress, however, that hunters, landowners and FWP need to work together to develop more access opportunities during the five-week general season.
“Hunting access to private land and isolated public land is clearly needed during the general hunting season in many of Montana’s over-objective areas,” Hagener said. “Everything hinges on the fact that FWP won’t propose a shoulder season where elk stay on private lands not open to public hunting during the general season. Already, some landowners have reached out to express a new willingness to allow access for the open participation shoulder seasons would provide.”
Harvest by hunters in the general season and limited shoulder seasons would chart the success and future of a shoulder season and the results will be routinely available for public scrutiny.
“These guidelines present FWP and hunters with a new opportunity to work with landowners willing to provide free public access to hunt elk on private lands as part of the overall effort to reduce elk numbers,” Hagener said. “It will take some time but wildlife science will determine if the publicly approved and measurable harvest criteria are effective and if the commitment to reduce elk is a priority for all partners.”
Comments on the proposed elk shoulder season pilot projects will be taken until 5 p.m. on Nov. 6. The six hunting districts include 392, in the west side of the Big Belt Mountains; 445, 446, 449 and 452, on the east side of the Big Belts and the Castle Mountains; and 410, in the Missouri River Breaks.