Seeley Swan Pathfinder
by Mike Thompson,
Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Columnist "Game Range Ramblings"
Over my years of employment with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, my hunting season traditions have developed along a path I didn't envision when I first began working toward a career in wildlife management.
Nowadays, most of my hunting season traditions do not involve me hunting. They involve other people hunting.
Nevertheless, they have become traditions just the same, and they warm me much the same as a shotgun or rifle in my hands on a crisp, fall day. Well, it's not the same, but there are similarities.
The annual closing of the Game Range is one of those new traditions that I don't necessarily look forward to, but it usually develops into a pleasant outing once the time arrives.
When I first gained this particular position with FWP in 1987, the traditional closing date was the third Sunday of the general hunting season. A couple years later, the season was extended to the third Friday. Now, it's November 10th, on whatever day of the week it falls.
This year's closing was an exception to tradition because Sharon couldn't come along. She was stuck at home with a bad cold, and although I didn't miss being cooped up for hours in a pickup truck with her draining fluids and hungry germs, I did miss her company and her help. Usually, we would trade off driving the truck and bailing out to post signs around the Game Range boundary, but this time I had to do both.
Last year, I came up with a plan that would allow me to do much of the sign posting in daylight, and I followed that prescription again this year. In previous years, our signs would simply say "Wildlife Management Area (Hunting District 282 Portion) Closed To All Entry." To avoid confusion, they could not be posted before the end of legal shooting hours on November 10th. So, Sharon and I would work our way around the boundaries of Hunting District 282 under the cover of darkness.
Last year, I included the dates of the closure period on the signs - November 11 through May 14 - to help the public understand that the closure is seasonal, and to allow people to plan for the spring opening. With this innovation, it dawned on me that I could now begin posting in daylight because anyone who stopped to read the signs on the 10th would see that the closure didn't begin until the 11th. This was an important improvement, since my biological bedtime is arriving earlier than it used to.
Still, the job continues to consume much of the night. This is because I have to close and lock the main access gates. Technically, hunters have until midnight on the 10th to get themselves and their harvested game out of the Game Range without violating the winter closure. I'll admit here that I seldom wait until midnight to close the gates, but neither am I in any great hurry. Usually, everyone's gone within three hours after shooting hours end, and so far I've never found a skeleton on the wrong side of a gate.
I hope you'll agree that I did a favor for you this year. Instead of posting blaze orange signs all around, I used tan colored paper for all but the main access points. Hopefully, this type of signing will be effective enough at discouraging people from approaching wintering wildlife on the Game Range, but will detract little from our appreciation of the winter landscape where we live. (I still used lots of blaze orange in some of the usual trouble spots along Highway 200.)
The last job of the evening is to dismantle the check station at the Game Range headquarters. That's when I gather the season's accumulation of elk and deer teeth, which indicates the number of animals killed.
Even though elk hunting was a bust early, it picked up considerable with the onset of some wintry weather. We finished with a reported kill of 22 elk in HD 282, compared with only 18 last year.
Deer hunting was a pleasant surprise. Hunters killed 39 white-tailed deer in HD 282, compared with 26 last year. Among these was a 6x7 buck that I wish I had seen. It will be especially interesting to learn the age of that one. Only three mule deer were reported killed in HD 282 this year.
We've turned the heart of the Game Range over to the elk for another winter, but the general hunting season elsewhere in Montana continues through the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I hope you're getting more hunting in than I am.