Too many elk in Montana–maybe not enough wolves

23 hours ago  • 

After a lengthy and sometimes contentious debate, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission decided to extend the public comment period from 30 to 60 days on a proposed elk hunting season.

The proposal could allow hunting before and/or after the existing archery and rifle seasons to reduce elk populations.

“This is a proposal that the department has worked really hard on, but a fair bit of the public pushback you’ll get on this is that it’s being done too quickly,” said Dan Vermillion, commission chairman from Livingston.

He also noted that many of the state’s conservation groups don’t meet in the summer, and folks are on vacation and so may not take part in the discussion.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials had requested the 30-day public comment period to provide time for wildlife managers to set a late season this December and to aid in setting the 2016-17 hunting seasons.

Support and opposition for the proposal split along a common divide — public land hunters versus landowners and outfitters.

Drummond-area rancher Ron Wetsch said the overpopulation of elk is so bad on his property, even though he allows public hunting, that if something isn’t done soon he and his neighbors may take matters into their own hands.

Last hunting season, Wetsch said 147 elk were killed on his property, but by this spring 600 elk calves had been born. He estimated that elk cost him $80,000 in feed for his livestock last year and $75,000 so far this year.

“Our biggest problem is Fish, Wildlife and Parks,” he said. “If it don’t work, change it.”

Jay Bodner, of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, also supported the idea of extending the hunting seasons to remove more elk.

He said the general consensus among the group’s members is that the more tools that FWP has available to reduce elk populations, the better.

Commissioner Richard Stuker, of Chinook, sided with the landowners.

“If we do not do something, I think there will be a revolt among the landowners,” he said.

Lack of access

On the hunting side, J.W. Westman of the Laurel Rod and Gun Club said that the issue goes back to the “same old story” of a lack of access to elk on private land during the hunting season. He noted that sportsmen and women took a beating in the Legislature for opposing the reinstatement of a late cow elk hunt — Senate Bill 245 — which eventually was passed but then vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock.

“This plan looks pretty close to what SB245 was,” Westman said.

He argued that there are still tools available to FWP under the current elk management plan to reduce elk numbers, such as going to cow elk hunts only in districts where the elk are over population objectives.

Incorporating landowners who don’t allow public hunting to take part in late-season cow elk hunts bypasses current requirements, said Kathryn QannaYahu, of the website Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife and Habitat. She questioned whether FWP should even count elk where they are harbored.

Commissioner Matt Tourtlotte, of Billings, agreed with the objectors to the proposal, saying FWP hasn’t done everything it can under its current elk management plan to reduce populations.

“This whole proposal is being driven by objective, and I don’t feel like that information is accessible,” he said.

“My sense is that most objectives are set by tolerance,” Vermillion said, noting that Montana’s landscape could support more elk but at a cost to its agricultural economy.

But driving down elk populations in places like rural portions of Eastern Montana could be tough no matter how many cow elk permits FWP issues or how long the seasons are extended, Vermillion added. Most hunters live in the state’s cities, meaning it’s a long drive, and late seasons come at a busy time of year because of the Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays, along with busy sports seasons.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said

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  1. rork Avatar

    Where I live private land owners aren’t over-ungulated unless they want to be. They lease hunting rights for money, and can negotiate the terms, and if their hunters don’t keep deer down enough, get new ones. Is that illegal in Montana, or does it just not work out so easy with elk? (I’d fear elk too.) Is some of this just ranchers complaining that there are too many elk in of some of those quotes. (I do get that there will be huge debate about what densities are appropriate in hunting units.)

    I’ll note the first link said only 40% of units were over targets, and being over target does not mean way over, so there’s a limit to the schadenfreude humor. But let me also pile on. Stories about trivial changes in MI hunting regs have create numerous new data-free comments by self-declared experts that wolves are an enormous problem in upper MI. Though each writer is unanimous in their opinion, mysteriously, they never link to writings where a biologist agrees. One possibility is that they lack computer skilz, but maybe someone can come up with a better theory. It’s a puzzle.

    1. rork Avatar

      To be fair, let me add that low-ish ungulate densities might rebound slower in the face of greater predator pressure, be the predator human or carnivore. Affect of wolf on coyote in MI little discussed. Sir, can I please have more data?

  2. Yvette Avatar

    rork, the comments on the Billings Gazette story seem to explain the bulk of the problem. If what they state is true, one of the problems is access to public land when ranchers have bought land that surrounds it, thus land locking the public lands; and 2) rancher’s only allowing cow hunts unless the hunter works through the outfitter the rancher/landowner has contracted with.

    There are some informative comments on the story. Elk375 would be able to provide the real story, I think. It sounds like the regular non-rich Montanan hunter is getting the shaft from rich landowners and well off ranchers. I wonder what is the truth? If so, that is sad. The regular joe should be able to hunt without paying an outfitter thousands of dollars and without being cutoff from public lands. I detest the bourgeois who put the shaft to regular working people. Greed.

    I was in the Seeley Lake, MT area last weekend and the deer are not only numerous but darn near tame. One has to be careful because they mosey across the road and stare at you like, “why are you on my road?”. I did encounter one doe that actually ran from me when I was on a short hike on an under utilized trail. I was just happy she acted like a wild deer and ran.

    1. Elk375 Avatar

      Yvette, here is an article from the “Montana Outdoors” about elk and private land.

      1. Yvette Avatar

        That was an informative article. Thanks, Elk375.

  3. Gary Humbard Avatar
    Gary Humbard

    My hypothesis of 90% of elk and deer are killed by a consistent base of 10% of the hunters. The successful hunters work the ground (versus road hunters), know where elk tend to be located and spend the time in the field hunting them. That’s why guides success rates increase non-resident hunters over resident.

    “We’re looking at what tools we can implement to get elk numbers down in districts where we’re over objective,” said Ken McDonald, wildlife bureau chief for FWP.

    There isn’t a better tool to reduce elk populations than wolves, but of course that would be using nature.

    1. Joanne Favazza Avatar
      Joanne Favazza

      “There isn’t a better tool to reduce elk populations than wolves, but of course that would be using nature.”

      And God forbid that we industrialized humans, with our insatiable need to “manage and control,” would ever permit nature to do what it has successfully done for millions of years. Nope, we just can’t seem to help ourselves–we have to keep meddling and interfering, most of the time causing far more harm than good.

  4. Wayne silvan Avatar
    Wayne silvan

    One thing that has to be changed for more critters to be harvested is the rule of corner crossing from one part of public land to another when it intersects with private land,over buy Dillon, there is a piece of land like this and the elk will sit on the parcel of state land and no one can get to them because of the corner crossing rule.And also paid hunting is being a problem also,and because I don’t charge for people to hunt on my private property but my neighbors do it puts more pressure on me so I have to regulate more, how many people hunt on my land, I don’t have the elk problem but deer are abundant,usually,but the wolf isn’t the answer especially if there is a quota to be filled for them.

  5. snaildarter Avatar

    I think the important point is wolves are not the blood thirsty ogres as described by certain crazed elk hunters.
    Wolves are part of the natural system that always works very well, its the human cow, fence, property rights non-sense that has issues and needs constant attention. So just fix it without making the poor wolf the scapegoat.

  6. Lloyd Dorsey Avatar
    Lloyd Dorsey

    FYI, in the 2014 Annual Report from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (the most recent one available), p. A-3, for the calendar year 2013, the statewide objective for elk was 82,525. The actual elk population was 110,500. (LD: that’s almost 28,000 elk, or 33%, over objective)
    Hunter success was 45%.
    “At present, only 1 of 26 elk herds with complete data are below objective, 96 percent are at or above objective. . . . . Management strategies will continue to focus on decreasing elk statewide, except in the herds at objective. Seasons have been extended for the antlerless and cow/calf licenses to try to increase harvest.”

  7. Danney Spain Avatar
    Danney Spain

    Well , I’ve been up in the mountains this year particularly this early fall. And I see the food in the upper 2/3 of the mountains is sparse and dry. My guess the drought has taken its toll up I would travel to get to the mountains I also noticed most of the animals I saw were down low, closer to creek and river drainages. As I would continue higher I would see less animals , particularly deer and elk. And the sign I would see was quit old. If we have a normal or above average cold winter , the animals food source will be dismal and lacking to say the least.even the food in lower drainages is dry and less dense, or plentiful. So in my humble opinion, nature will quite possibly take care of any problem we may have with over abundance deer and elk. Wolves are not the answer one way or the other. Natures has a way of taking care of its own.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      “Well , I’ve been up in the mountains this year particularly this early fall. And I see the food in the upper 2/3 of the mountains is sparse and dry”

      You’re not giving much information, at all, as to what areas, Danney.

      Has the area been “blanketed” by livestock, over the summer months? That might be a clue? 🙂

      And re: your comment – “Wolves are not the answer one way or the other. Natures has a way of taking care of its own”

      A suggestion, spend a little more time reading/researching about how ecosystems/nature “DID take care of its own” before the human species (that’s you Danney 🙂 started tinkering around, managing it.

    2. MAD Avatar

      Wolves are an intrinsic part of nature. They are woven into the fabric of ecosystems. Are you implying they are not part of nature? Are you part of the Canadian alien invasive species crowd?


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner