Snowy Mountains elk herd 800% over population shows Montana’s challenge managing elk

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One of the state’s largest elk herds roams across the Big and Little Snowy mountains of central Montana.

More than 7,200 elk were counted in the area last spring, most of them (about 6,600) live on the east end of the Little Snowies on land owned by billionaire brothers Farris and Dan Wilks.

“It is no surprise that elk have fared much better on the east ends” of the Snowy Mountains, FWP noted in its hunting regulation proposal. “Large swaths of land in both (hunting) districts have been effectively closed to hunting for almost the last two decades.”

For the past few years Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks committed to lengthy six-month seasons — called elk shoulder seasons — to reduce cow elk populations in the Snowy Mountains and other areas where elk were over population objectives. Now that could change.


Elk populations in the Snowy Mountain elk management unit are 800% over objectives set by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

Under legislative mandate, FWP was ordered to manage elk herds to certain population goals. For the three hunting districts that span the Snowies — HD 411 on the north side from east to west, HD 511 to the southwest and HD 530 on the southeast — the population goal is 690 to 900 elk. So the existing elk population is more than 800% above FWP’s objective.

“Relatively few landowners control most of the access to elk in this (elk management unit), and for the most part they have a high tolerance for a large elk population,” area FWP biologists noted.

Those few landowners include the Wilkses to the east and the Three Bar Ranch on the west side of the Snowies.


A bull elk in velvet appears to be smiling for the camera.


The Fish and Wildlife Commission has suggested that since the Snowy Mountain elk populations weren’t meeting criteria FWP developed for holding shoulder seasons, the six-month hunt should be dropped. Those criteria include, among others, that a hunter harvest of cow elk greater than the number of female elk born in the spring, and/or a total harvest of all elk that is greater than the number born.

Area FWP biologists estimate the Snowy Mountain elk herd is growing about 1,000 to 2,000 animals every year. Under the shoulder seasons that have allowed a six-month elk hunt on state, BLM and private lands the hunter harvest has been about 800 elk a year, up from about 360 prior to the extended seasons being initiated.

“Places like 411 certainly are not the poster child for successful shoulder seasons,” said Shane Colton, Fish and Wildlife Commission chairman.

It was Colton who proposed the shoulder seasons go away in hunting districts where criteria were not being met. The criteria were created in part to appease many hunters who denounced the long seasons as harmful and unsportsmanlike, since hunts would occur late in winter when elk are already stressed by cold weather and cows are pregnant with calves.

Shane D. Colton


In place of the lengthy shoulder seasons, new tools have been proposed to increase elk harvest in the Snowy Mountains.

One is to make the general elk A license good for spike bulls as well as cows. In the past, the general license has been a cow-only hunt.

“Occasionally, hunters encounter only bull groups that also contain spikes, so this proposed change may help increase overall harvest in the (hunting district), without significant biological impacts,” according to FWP’s explanation. “Harvesting a spike over a cow will have a lesser impact on population growth, but it still represents an additional elk harvested, and bulls are well over-objective in this (elk management unit). Finally, the disparity between HDs 411 and 511/530 have resulted in hunters mistakenly harvesting spike elk in HD 411 and this proposal will rectify that issue and reduce unintended violations.”

In addition the agency would increase elk B licenses from 400 to 800. These tags are only available via drawings. Also new next year, thanks to the Legislature, a hunter could carry a third B license in certain areas, including the Snowy Mountains. So if there were surplus B tags, a hunter could possibly shoot three elk.

“All of the early and late stuff goes away,” said John Vore, FWP’s Game Management Bureau chief.

Extended elk hunt regulation proposals draw spirited debate

Vore had argued to keep the shoulder seasons since hunters were killing more elk.

“We were harvesting a lot more elk,” he said. “It is generally moving us in the right direction.”

Also, the area biologists noted that, “Since the advent of shoulder seasons, there have been few to no game damage complaints related to cow elk in the Snowy (elk management unit hunting districts).”

“We’re certainly sensitive to those landowners who find themselves next to” large concentrations of elk, Colton said. “But we have a lot of tools to get at that.”

In addition, area biologists and wardens were working with landowners to increase hunter access, at least for cow elk hunting, and were seeing some success. But many hunters voiced opposition during the December commission meeting to continuing with the six-month hunts.

Now all hunters, landowners, or any member of the public has a chance to comment online, via mail or at meetings being held around the state on this proposal or the many others. A final decision will be made at the February commission meeting after all of the public comment has been collected and assessed.

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