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Elk leading hunters at halftime

November 18, 1999
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder
by Mike Thompson


It's too bad Gary Larsen retired from drawing "The Far Side" cartoons. He could have had a lot of fun with this year's hunting season.

For instance, I envision elk and hunters crowded around a big-screen TV in a sports bar. They're watching The Weather Channel. Every time high pressure builds over Montana, a cheer goes up among the elk. But, when the jet stream dives south from Canada, the hunters start trash talking.

And, at halftime in the 1999 hunting season, the elk have cheered themselves hoarse.

Forgive me if we're in the icy grip of a storm front riding the Siberian express as you read this. Because I'm writing it in the middle of November, on the wrong side of a picture window, looking out at 64 degrees and blue sky. And, chinook winds just whipped up.

I'm thinking about fishing, not hunting, and I'm not the only one, judging by the data coming in from check stations across west-central Montana (i.e., Region 2). From Bonner to Anaconda to Darby, hunter-trips through the check stations are lower than they've been in the past five years.

Admit it, hunters. How many of you have been caught in the shopping mall this hunting season, eating ice cream and renting movies instead of cooking beans and hiking the mountains?

The numbers of animals checked at Region 2 checking stations through the first two weeks of hunting season are also the lowest they've been in the current 5-year period. On the bright side, we're seeing an upswing in the white-tailed deer kill compared with last season, owing to a good fawn crop last year and good recruitment of yearling (1-1/2 year old) bucks this year. Thank goodness for the mild winters that followed the last ice age in 1996-97.

At the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range (Hunting District 282), the special season closed on November 10 with the lowest elk harvest since we established the Game Range check station in 1988. Only 11 cow elk were reported killed by 50 hunters with special A-7 licenses. It's tempting to complain, but a 22% success rate looks pretty good this year, compared with most other places.

Some folks have asked if the special season will be extended, and I don't blame them for asking. The elk just haven't been in HD 282 this yearat least in large numbersbecause there hasn't been weather to push them to the winter range.

Actually, we already addressed this very situation a few years back, when the special A-7 license for HD 282 was also made valid for adjacent HD 285. This action expanded the available hunting area for special license-holders from 43 square miles to 489 square miles. Of course, most people want to hunt the Game Range. But, if someone really, really wants an elk, the special license allows privileged hunters to pursue antlerless elk wherever they live, whether on summer range around Seeley Lake and the southern fringe of the Bob Marshall or on winter range near Clearwater Junction.

And, even though hunting is now closed in HD 282, special license-holders may continue hunting for that elusive cow in HD 285 through November 28. After all, we know that's where most of the elk are.

Contrary to popular belief, the early closure of hunting season in HD 282 is not something done by Fish, Wildlife & Parks to see how many people we can confuse. The early closure has been in place since 1956, and hunter numbers have been limited by a special drawing since 1973. These regulations reflect the fact that the portion of the Game Range in HD 282 is critical winter range for as many as 1,000 elk. Even though we may be basking in sunshine today, we could get that big dump of snow any day now. And, when that happens, elk will pour onto the Game Range to continue maintaining and building fat reserves for the long winter. At such times, they are extremely vulnerable to overharvest and displacement onto neighboring ranches.

So, we carefully control hunting on the winter range, and provide as much hunting opportunity as possible on adjacent summer-fall ranges.

Besides, this is a year when FWP strives to continue building the Blackfoot-Clearwater elk herd from the population low of 759 elk that was documented during the annual helicopter survey of January 1998. This survey followed the loss of the two previous calf crops to the effects of the winter of 1996-97, and we've been in a rebuilding mode ever since. Sorry, but this FWP biologist is not wholeheartedly rooting for the hunters this year.

Go elk! Bring on the high pressure and that southwesterly wind.

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