All of the proposed changes for deer and elk hunting regulations in the Bitterroot Valley were approved Thursday by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission, although some concerns were raised about mule deer and elk in Hunting District 260.
That district generally extends from Skalkaho Road to Florence east of Highway 93, and is all private property. It’s a popular place for elk to reside during the winter, and late in the season-setting process, FWP Region 2 recommended adding brow-tine bulls to the list of elk that could be taken during archery season.
“This was an attempt to address the damage from younger bull elk on private land,” Mike Thompson, the Region 2 wildlife manager, told the commission.
But Steve Wilson of Hamilton noted that the idea wasn’t put before the Bitterroot Elk Working Group prior to coming to the commission for final approval, and he asked that they not “change anything in the middle of the stream without public vetting.”
“As soon as archers can shoot bulls, ranchers will want it, too. We’ll be back to shoot-outs and dangerous situations,” Wilson said.
Another change involves mule deer hunting in HD 262 and 261, which is adjacent to but farther east of 262. Both are managed as trophy districts, but since HD 262 is all privately owned, wildlife biologists said it shouldn’t be a trophy unit.
The commission approved issuing 15 trophy tags in HD 261 and 25 in HD 262, instead of the 35 coveted permits available in recent years. The plan is to slowly ratchet up the number of tags in 262, which wildlife managers hope will put more pressure in the district and push the bucks out. About 3,000 people apply for the trophy mule deer tags in those districts each year.
FWP biologists noted that little bucks have the run of the place since everyone is seeking a trophy buck, and while their numbers are growing, as the mule deer population increases, more are getting struck by vehicles. They also don’t want to get into the situation where people grow big bucks on private land that’s off-limits to most hunters.
Another change allows for mule deer does to once again be taken in the East Fork in HD 270. Again, Wilson opposed the proposal, saying that population hasn’t recovered enough to allow does to be taken. He said the current population count of about 1,700 mule deer is half of what the population was 15 years ago.
“I don’t even know why we’re having this conversation,” Wilson said, noting that it’s also a popular trophy hunting district. “Those old matriarchs take care of the herd, they know the best food sources, the best place to have fawns and know when to leave the winter grounds. They’re valuable.”
Thompson said the idea is to try to reduce and manage the age structure of the adult female mule deer population. He believes allowing does to be taken will stimulate more productivity and better manage the high-quality habitat.
In the end, the commission unanimously decided to go with the Region 2 managers’ recommendations.
FWP also now will offer elk B licenses, valid for multiple districts, on private land only, throughout Region 2 with some exceptions, including in HD 240 and 250 in the Bitterroot. The licenses must be purchased before the general season begins.
The change is part of an effort to simplify regulations and allow hunters to go where the elk are located. The B licenses are for antlerless only, and that's part of an effort to reduce the number of elk, which are above population objectives in many areas of Montana.
Another proposed regulation change that would affect the Bitterroot was expanding the youth deer hunt from two days to four days, and expanding the upper age limit from 15 to 17 years old. The idea was that this would entice younger hunters to get out in the field.
However, that idea was rejected after the vast majority of the 121 comments received by FWP opposed the idea. Some archers said the extra two days would further encroach on the bowhunting season, which takes place before the general big game rifle season. Commissioners also agreed that 17-years-olds should be treated like adult hunters.
Boundary changes were approved in HD 270, so it will be two rather than three areas.
Hunting regulations are adopted biennially for most game species, and the proposed regulations cover deer, elk, antelope, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, bison, black bear, mountain lion, wolf, turkey, and upland and migratory birds.