The elk "shoulder season" guidelines would allow for developing and proposing elk hunting seasons to improve elk-harvest management in specific locales.
Public comment, which was to end today, was extended to Aug. 28 to allow additional time for review of the proposal. The Fish & Wildlife Commission meeting set for Oct. 8 was also moved from Kalispell to Helena to accommodate anticipated public interest.
"Shoulder seasons add time for harvest to the existing general season," explained Quentin Kujala, the wildlife bureau coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in Helena. "Based on population sizes and elk harvest rates, both the general season and shoulder seasons will need to contribute significantly to overall harvest."
Kujala said there are expectations among the governor, lawmakers, and the public for FWP to manage elk at established population objectives, which were developed through a public process.
Today, 80 of 138 elk management units that have a stated objective and have been recently surveyed are currently over population objectives, Kujala said.
"For FWP to manage to objectives it will require increased elk harvest in areas over objective," Kujala said. "That's what shoulder season can help to achieve, but only if hunting access to elk on private land, or isolated public land, is also increased during the general hunting season in many of these over-objective areas. That's a crucial consideration. Public hunting, during the general hunting season, is still the primary mechanism for wildlife population control in Montana."
The proposed guidelines include all currently available harvest tools, including season structure, types of licenses and permits, game damage hunts, game management seasons, and hunting season extensions.
As proposed, shoulder seasons could include any firearm season in the commission-approved hunting regulations that occurs outside the five-week general firearm season. Montana's general hunting season begins in late October and ends the Sunday after Thanksgiving Day.
Shoulder season hunting opportunities could occur between Aug. 15 and Feb. 15 and could include hunting for antlered and antlerless elk.
Measurable harvest criteria are also outlined to ensure a uniform assessment of how shoulder seasons are performing by FWP and the public.
"Harvest by hunters in the general season and total harvest will be used to assess shoulder season effectiveness," Kujala said. "Estimates of elk population annual growth and annual harvest will routinely be made publicly available by FWP."
The proposed criteria stress that – in addition to shoulder seasons – hunter access during the general season must increase in many areas where elk populations exceed management objectives.
Kujala explained that FWP won't propose to maintain shoulder seasons in areas where a lack of hunting access during the general season results in elk movement to private lands. This sort of elk distribution can reduce elk presence and harvest on public lands and other private properties open to hunting access.
Kujala said a significant difference between shoulder seasons and other hunt options outside the general season is the wide availability of hunters and hunter opportunity. For instance, participation in shoulder seasons would not be limited to hunters drawn from the hunt roster.
Another difference is the evaluation process. Shoulder season criteria are applied post season instead of being used as entry requirements. There has to be at least a defined minimum amount of general season hunting, including reasonable hunting access, occurring and contributing to a sufficient overall harvest.
Comments will be taken until 5 p.m. on Aug. 28. For more information or to comment online visit the FWP website at fwp.mt.gov. Click "Submit Public Comments," then click "Hunting & Trapping." Or write to: FWP – Wildlife Division, Attn: Public Comment, P.O. Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620-0701.