Hunting Opener Yields
Good Elk Harvest


Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles
by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder



October 26, 2000
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson


Employees of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) have different hunting season traditions than other hunters.

I know this because the other people filling 4B's Restaurant at quarter-to-three last Sunday morning were not wearing flannel and wool. It was the bar crowd having their breakfasts before crashing for the night.

In stark contrast, my Saturday night had ended several hours earlier. And, like many other FWP biologists and wardens, my longest Sunday of the year had already begun.

Right away I noticed that environmental conditions on this opening day of Montana's big game hunting season would be different than last year.

For one thing, the moon that radiated in full through the early morning hours last year could only muster a crescent to light the horizon as I traveled up the Bitterroot Valley toward the Bolin Conservation Easement.

And, I thought it was pretty cold for me to find someone sleeping in the back of his Subaru when I checked the upper Bolin parking lot at 4:15. I hoped he had a strong heart when I rapped on the window to roust him.

"Did you read the sign here in front of you before you went to sleep?" I asked, still a little perturbed that people like this one cost me a few hours of sleep every year.

"No," he replied, still startled from his unplanned arousal.

"Well, you should have," I answered. "It says this parking lot is closed between 10 P.M. and 5 A.M. every day. It's to give everyone a fair chance to park and hunt on the easement area. No camping or hogging parking spaces in the lot. I'll have to ask you to leave."

"No problem," he said. I was pleasantly surprised at how promptly he was able to pull himself together and drive away, and I appreciated the fact that he made no fuss about it. He knew he had gambled and lost. You might even say he was lucky. He got caught by a biologist instead of a warden. I just wanted him out of the parking area so that the regulations in the Bolin Conservation Easement would work well to provide public access. A warden would have made him address the issue of his violation of FWP Commission rules and regulations.

If you've ever complained that FWP never listens to what the public tells us, well, never say never. The only reason I was at that parking lot at 4:15 this year, and why Warden Doug Johnson was there before the sun shined on opening morning last year, is because hunters had reported abuses of parking privileges to us in previous years. We do pay attention to what people tell us, though we simply don't have enough resources and time to act on everything we might like to.

In midmorning on Threemile Wildlife Management Area, east of Florence, I learned two valuable lessons. One is, some people really do respect road closures, even when it would be easy to drive around a sign post. The second is, a hunter can never carry too much rope. Slowly and gradually, the vehicle parked in front of the road closure sign inched down the open road, dragging a taught line behind it. It made me think of a magician pulling a handkerchief out of his assistant's ear. I watched for what seemed like an eternity until the legs of a freshly killed cow elk finally materialized over the crest of the hill and came to rest beside the road-closed sign, where the vehicle could be driven back for loading.

At Calf Creek Wildlife Management Area, near Corvallis, I met a retired gentleman heading back to town to recruit help in retrieving the first bull elk he had killed in his lifetime. Another fellow had selected a large calf as the perfect compromise between pounds of elk meat for the freezer and pounds of human flesh shed to drag it there.

I finished the afternoon and evening at Montana's largest Wildlife Management Area, our own Blackfoot-Clearwater. With this hunting season's early opening date (due to the earlier than average occurrence of Thanksgiving this year), quite a few of the lucky licensees for Hunting District 282 were apparently taking advantage of their extended season to wait for more snow to bring elk down from the high country. I only bumped into two parties of hunters, and only one elk tooth and one deer tooth had been turned in at the Game Range check station that day.

Things also looked fairly quiet at Bonner Check Station when I drove by at 8:00 P.M. When the results were tallied on Monday morning, Bonner had recorded a total of 997 hunters, continuing a steady downward trend in opening day hunter participation since 1996. However, the elk harvest was 29, up from lows of 18 and 17 on the two previous season openers.

For me, one more opening day was in the books. And, it was a gratifying one at that. Because it's at this time of year when FWP folks get to see many of their efforts pay off in smiles on the faces of many people for whom hunting is a treasured part of life.

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