STEVENSVILLE - Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials are considering an early season management hunt on an elk herd that took up residence last winter near Ambrose Lane northeast of Stevensville.

"We want to find a way to give those elk some incentive to move back to the more open spaces just to the east," said FWP Bitterroot-based biologist Craig Jourdonnais. "We were just crushed with game damage complaints last winter."

A herd of about 130 elk spent a good portion of the cold months roaming through residential subdivisions and farmlands between Ambrose Lane and South Burnt Fork, east of Illinois Bench Road.

It was the first time that anyone alive had seen that many elk spend that amount of time in the bench lands just below the Sapphire Mountains.

Joudonnais said the situation can't be allowed to continue in such a heavily populated area.

"It's not workable," he said. "As much as some people enjoyed seeing the elk there, there were many who didn't."

Discussions on the potential early season management hunt are in the preliminary states.

"No decision has been made yet," he said. "We are just in the talking stages at this point. ... Nothing is set in stone."

The management hunt would not focus on reducing the herd's size. Instead, its goal would be to put enough pressure on the elk to convince them to move further to the east where there is plenty of open space and private landowners more tolerant of large numbers of elk.

"We would be looking to modify their behavior," Jourdonnais said.

Before a hunt would happen, Jourdonnais plans to talk with as many interested people as possible.

"This is going to take a lot of table time," he said. "I want to be able to sit down and talk with people. My concern is people are going to catch bits and pieces of this and all of a sudden everyone will be thinking we're planning a wide open hunt with people shooting across other people's porches."

That's not what is being considered.

If approved by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission, the hunt would be very controlled, with only a small number of elk harvested.

The hunt would probably begin sometime in August and, if needed, continue through February.

"We would want to be able to continually keep pressure on those elk that are staying in those lower elevations," he said. "We would be looking at harvesting only antlerless elk."

Jourdonnais has offered the idea to local sportsmen's groups, the Bitterroot Elk Working Group and a few landowners so far.

"I plan to spend a good part of July talking with people and trying to gauge support for this proposal," Jourdonnais said. "It's extremely important that I hear from people with concerns, especially public safety concerns. We want to design something that will work for people."

Jourdonnais can be reached on his cell phone at 240-0558 or through the Missoula FWP office at 542-5500.

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.