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Sportsmen asked to weigh in on proposed major changes to hunting regulations

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Bitterroot Forest offers hunters tips for upcoming season

The Bitterroot National Forest offers some tips for hunters. 

This year's proposed changes to deer and elk hunting regulations by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks are on a scale unlike anything sportsmen have ever seen before.

The department’s new director, Hank Worsech, tasked biologists to look for ways to combine hunting districts and simplify license structures for the upcoming biennial season-setting session.

“Hunters have told us for years that our regulations are too complicated,” Worsech said in August. “Past efforts to simplify the regulations have mostly resulted in small changes every two years. It’s time to take a more holistic look at the regulations to make them more understandable and effective.”

The first draft of the proposed changes was released last week. FWP is taking its first round of public comment through Oct. 20.

In the Bitterroot, the proposed changes include the elimination of a coveted trophy mule deer buck hunting district and doing away with a permit requirement designed to keep hunter numbers at manageable levels in the valley's most popular elk hunting district.

“Hunting districts that have been managed the same way forever are now going to be gone,” said Tony Jones of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association. “People need to be aware because next year there could be some big changes for sportsmen when they get their regulations.”

FWP-based biologist Rebecca Mowry hopes that sportsmen will take time to study the proposal and offer their own suggestions if they don’t like what they see.

“We have an opportunity to make changes,” Mowry said. “I personally am more than willing to make changes, but I have to have justification, whether that be biological or social.”

Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association members offered the state a list of potential changes. Their main focus addresses proposals to eliminate a trophy mule hunting district that has been in place since 1997 and the reconfiguration of the valley’s most popular elk hunting area, HD 270.

The state is proposing to eliminate Hunting District 261 — placing the northern half into HD 204 and the southern end in HD 270. The boundary line between the expanded districts would be Willow Creek.

While the proposal makes biological sense for elk, Jones said HD 261 has been managed as a trophy mule deer area for more than 20 years. Last year almost 1,300 hunters applied for the 15 mule deer buck permits in HD 261.

“That shows how popular it is,” Jones said. “Right now, the bucks aren’t used to being pressured. Opening up half of it to a general season would wipe out those big bucks. In the name of simplifying regulations, we would throw away 20 years of management that’s created a very special mule deer permit.”

The association supports combining the two hunting districts for elk management, but asks for the creation of a sub-unit for mule deer bucks between Burnt Fork and Willow creeks.

“I know the primary concern with eliminating 261 is mule deer,” Mowry said. “I totally understand and it’s a valid concern. We really need to hear from the public.”

The state’s proposal also looks to eliminate the requirement that hunters obtain an unlimited brow-tined bull elk permit to hunt in HD 270. The permit doesn’t preclude hunters from hunting elk elsewhere, but it does require them to give up their first choice in the special elk drawing.

Before the permit requirement, the elk migration from the Big Hole into their winter range in the Bitterroot during the later part of the season would often draw large crowds of hunters.

“Hunters know about that migration and elk would get bombarded by an influx of hunters in an area where there’s not that much protection,” Jones said.

With a large fire in 2017 and this summer’s Trail Creek Fire that burned on the north end of the Big Hole, Jones said elk are going to be even more exposed.

“Without the unlimited permits, we are afraid that there will be an overharvest of the bulls that migrate into the Bitterroot,” he said. “This year, more people than ever applied for the unlimited permit. More guys kill more elk. Without that permit, people are going to put incredible pressure on the elk.”

Mowry said she’s been hearing from hunters for years on both sides of the unlimited elk permits.

“Those bull permits have been here since I started working here,” she said. “Every year, I get a lot of phone calls and emails from hunters who don’t want that permit. And I get a lot of phone calls and emails from hunters who want to keep the permit.”

“It’s no-win either way,” Mowry said. “It’s another place we want some comment.”

The association is also recommending the state take a large step outside the box and combine HD 270 with the adjoining HD 334 in the Big Hole. Jones said that while the sticking point will be the two districts are in separate FWP regions, the agency’s own research shows the same elk herd summers in the Big Hole before migrating into the Bitterroot for winter range.

That was documented in FWP’s Upper Bitterroot Elk Research Project that provided telemetry data from cow and calf elk over several years.

“Managing that herd of elk in one district makes biological sense,” Jones said. “The whole push is to eliminate hunting units using biology. It would make for a hunt unit that runs from Willow Creek clear to Wisdom and allow for elk to be managed as one herd, which they are.”

Jones said other proposals are on a smaller scale will be offered by the association.

“We’ve been looking at this for a couple of months now,” he said. “There are a lot of changes that are incredibly complicated with multiple layers. We’ve been working to sort through it all.”

“We’ve tried to focus on the major issues and come up with reasonable solutions,” Jones said. “Most of this probably wouldn’t have been proposed if it hadn’t been mandated by the director … The seasons and permit types were originally set for biological reasons and trying to remove them in order to simplify regulations and not throw biology under the bus is not an easy task.”

“When it comes down to trying to solve social issues with biology involved and not damage the resource, that’s a big order,” he said. “It’s really tough to try to do.”

The potential changes and comment opportunities can be found at fwp.mt.gov/aboutfwp/public-comment-opportunities/hunting-reg-changes.

FWP officials will sort through the feedback they receive from the first comment period and develop proposals that will be heard at the Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting on Dec. 14. Following that meeting, a second 30-day comment period will begin. The commission will adopt final hunting regulations at its meeting in early February.

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