Improving access? Montana establishes uniform, 5-week general elk and deer season


BILLINGS — The Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission has approved a uniform, five-week general elk and deer season that will do away with built-in damage hunts, in part to encourage landowners to allow more hunting access during the regular season.

Backcountry wilderness hunts will remain outside the five-week general season, as will some late hunts where elk migrate out of Yellowstone National Park after the general season has closed, under the plan the commission adopted on a 4-1 vote last week.

The commission also approved, on a 3-2 vote, a change in the mountain lion hunt in northwestern Montana from a quota system to a permit system.

Under the hunting season plan, damage hunts will have to meet certain criteria, among them reasonable public hunting access during the five-week season, before commissioners authorize them.

For many commissioners and FWP biologists, the bottom line was that the current system wasn't adequately managing elk numbers in many hunting districts.

"We figure that we're over elk objectives in 40 to 60 percent of our hunting districts," said Don Childress, wildlife division administrator for FWP.

"We're at a point where we can try to move forward with some things. It puts some accountability on everyone's part to see where we can get to in order to bring these numbers in line."

During public meetings on the proposal, Childress said sportsmen supported the plan and many outfitters opposed it, while landowners had various opinions, depending on whether they were also outfitters or allowed outfitters on their properties.

Exclusive outfitter leases tend to mean that just a few bull elk and buck deer are harvested by paying clients. And on closed lands, no harvest at all takes place, Childress said.

The next task for wildlife managers will be to set the criteria for special game damage hunts.

"We are going to make it very specific as to what the process will be and what the differences are between a general season, a management season and a game damage season," Childress said.

The new mountain lion permit system is expected to give hunters a three-month window in which to kill mountain lions. Under the current system, the hunt is basically a one-week race in many districts because the districts are closed after the quota is met.

FWP estimates that 40 percent to 50 percent of the mountain lions harvested in 2005 were killed by out-of-state hunters. Under the new program, only 10 percent of the permits can be issued to out-of-state hunters. Hunters will also be allowed to seek permits in just one district.

Hunters with trained dogs opposed the changes, saying it could take them years to get a permit and thus a chance to take their dogs hunting.

There are several districts in northwestern Montana where mountain lion quotas will remain in place.