Montana looks to change elk hunting regs

BOZEMAN — Montana wildlife officials this week are
launching 42 public meetings on proposed 2006 hunting regulations,
which include a major change in elk hunting.

The meetings open Wednesday in Drummond, followed by sessions
Thursday in Bozeman and Helmville. Other meetings around the state
are scheduled throughout the month.

The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks says that in
some places the state has too many elk, and hunters lack the access
necessary for herd control. The agency has proposed that most elk
hunting be concentrated in the five-week general hunting season
during the fall, and that in some parts of Montana, greater hunting
of cow elk be allowed.

Elk numbers exceed target levels in more than half of Montana's
elk management units, state wildlife officials say. Montana has an
estimated 145,000 elk, nearly triple the 1978 number. Over the
years, hunting regulations have been adjusted in an effort to
control the number of elk, but herds continue to grow.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks gets complaints from landowners about
damage to crops and receives requests for special hunts to control
the damage. In addition, hunters complain about lack of access.

"In almost every case, elk numbers grew as hunter access
diminished, leading to low harvests," said Gary Hammond, chief of
wildlife management for Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Under the proposed regulations, only landowners who offer
"reasonable" public access during the general hunting season
would be allowed damage hunts at other times.

"The idea is to get some elk harvested," said Ron Aasheim, a
spokesman for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. "There are only supposed
to be damage hunts if there's been reasonable access in the general

The executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers
Association, which represents many landowners who are ranchers,
said he has mixed opinions about the hunting proposal. Steve
Pilcher said simplifying elk regulations is a good idea, but he
questions whether population goals can be met through a five-week
hunting season.

"A five-week season, if Mother Nature does not cooperate, is
not going to achieve the goal," Pilcher said.

Under the new rules, extended seasons could be possible if
necessitated by weather, said Kurt Alt, a Fish, Wildlife and Parks
biologist in Bozeman.

The Montana Wildlife Federation is withholding judgment, for
now, executive director Craig Sharpe said.