Game Range Ramblin's
Game Range Articles
by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder
January 25, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
by Mike Thompson
After considering all public comments on Fish, Wildlife & Parks' (FWP) tentative regulations for the 2001 hunting season, Region 2 will recommend that the FWP Commission wait one more year to implement a brow-tined bull restriction for elk in Hunting Districts (HD) 283, 285 and 292.
Some of you will be happy to read this. Others will not.
FWP just completed its annual New Year's tour of 11 towns across Region 2, with folks in Seeley Lake (Jan. 17) and Missoula (Jan. 18) having the last words.
Most of those last words on the brow-tined bull proposal were supportive. Hunters who spoke in favor of the proposal cited their interest in letting spikes live another year longer to become raghorns. (Raghorns make better trophies than spikes, and contribute an extra year's complement of breeding bulls to the elk population, hunters told us.) There was also an interest in having consistent regulations where one elk population migrates through two or more HDs, such as HD 150 (which has the brow-tined restriction currently) and HD 285 (which currently allows any antlered bull to be killed).
Even some who spoke in opposition to the proposal acknowledged that bulls are being harvested too heavily in the southern and western portions of the Garnets, in HD 292. So, it shouldn't have surprised us to hear some of the strongest support for a brow-tined bull restriction from people who live in these areas and attended the Drummond meeting on January 12.
Opposition often came from people who feared a loss of opportunity to eat elk meat. Some felt that spikes are easier to come by and provide the most likely chances for a hunter to make a kill. They were concerned that with an extra year of life's experience under their belts, raghorns would be harder to find, even if the brow-tined bull restriction produced more of them.
"Young guys like brow-tined bull and older guys don't," was the way someone summed up the discussion at Seeley Lake. Hearing no uproar from the assembled mass, I assume he didn't miss the mark by much among the Seeley Lake contingent. Although, age, energy and testosterone may affect whether you want big bulls to hunt or would rather preserve the best odds of collecting a more manageable store of meat a lot closer to the road, I wouldn't say that these are the only factors in the brow-tined bull discussion.
Which brings me to the situation at Helmville. We had an excellent discussion of elk management issues there, with most of those in attendance being landowners.
And, because the elk population and hunting situation in that portion of HD 292, just west of Helmville, is much different than anyplace else in HDs 283, 285 or 292, our discussions in Helmville took off in an entirely different direction.
As many of you know, the elk situation near Helmville revolves around the management of a large ranch where the local elk population takes refuge in hunting season. The hunting that takes place on this ranch is carefully controlled to avoid driving elk off the property, and is not in sufficient amount to control the growth of the elk herd. The fact that neighboring landowners allow hunting around the perimeter of this private-land refuge to help control increasing elk-caused damage to fences and crops only reinforces to the elk that they should stay where they are protected.
Even the most experienced folks who hunt the extremely rugged and remote Wales and Yourname drainages behind the refugeon public landare reporting that fewer and fewer elk may be found there at a time when the elk herd has at least tripled in size over the last decade. It would appear that the effect of the refuge may even be felt in adjacent roadless areas with supreme security cover.
What's a wildlife manager to do?
Well, FWP has taken some significant management steps over the past few years to make the best of this difficult challenge, but the Helmville area landowners asked us not to add a brow-tined bull restriction to the list in their area.
The reasons are a mix of factors that the landowners tell us affect their hunting successand elk population controlin the area surrounding this private refuge. Some of the hunters that the landowners know and trust would like to hunt a bull elk rather than a cow in some hunting seasons. Often, the only bulls that occasionally disperse from the private land refuge during hunting season are spikes. A brow-tined bull regulation would eliminate this hunting opportunity, which the landowners tell us would hurt their abilities to hold the attention of hunters they trust to help control the elk population.
In addition, saving spikes in a growing population where increasing game damage is an issue would seem to be the wrong thing to do. The objective is to control elk numbers, not add protections from hunting that might result in more elk in cattle feeding grounds each winter.
As for bull survival, it's not an issue on the Helmville side of HD 292. FWP surveys in the early 1990s yielded over 30 bulls per 100 cows for this herd after hunting season, and recent surveys have yielded bull:cow ratios in the high teens under less favorable survey conditions.
In the days after the Missoula meeting, with all public comment in hand and digesting in the brains of FWP staff, we tried to draw a boundary on a map that would allow hunting for any antlered bull to continue on the Helmville side of HD 292, but allow a change to a brow-tined bull restriction everywhere else in HDs 292, 283 and 285. We began optimistic, but finished defeated. Due to the lay of the land and the positioning of roads, particularly in the McElwain Creek-Elevation Mountain area, we found no way of establishing an effective hunting area boundary that would be understandable and enforceable. Any attempt at trying something wild and crazy would have to wait until we have more time for discussion and field truthing. Our final input and written justifications were due to FWP staff in Helena last Monday.
So, we recommended waiting another year to make a change. We couldn't very well go ahead with the brow-tined bull restriction in HDs 283 and 285 without including the district (HD 292) where the impetus for the restriction is greatest. And, even if we could, we wouldn't want to risk an increase in hunting pressure on spikes in HD 292 by attracting more hunters who might feel displaced by the brow-tined bull restriction in adjacent HDs 283 and 285.
Whether you agree or not, we hope you can appreciate our position. And, thank you for participating in the public involvement process. Once again, as you can see by the change from the original proposal by Region 2, your input did make a difference. And, for those of you who support the brow-tined bull restriction, please notice we're only asking for more time to do it right.
The final decision rests with the FWP Commission at their meeting in Helena on February 8 and 9.