A herd of elk

A herd of elk is pictured in central Montana.

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Hunters can participate in a new antlerless elk shoulder season in the Paradise Valley this winter after Montana officials voted to adopt it at a meeting last Friday.

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission voted 4 to 1 to approve the late elk shoulder season in Hunting District 314. The district extends west from the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley to the Gallatin Crest.

Patrick Byorth representing southwest Montana was the lone commissioner against the proposal.

During the new season, hunters with the proper permits and permission from landowners can try to bag antlerless elk on private land in the district. The late season runs from the end of the 5-week general rifle season until Feb. 15, 2022.

Commissioners on Friday also extended late antlerless elk seasons to Feb. 15 in 18 hunting districts around the state, including three in southwest Montana’s Region 3.

The changes affect hunting districts 390, 391 and 393, which encompass areas around Bozeman, Livingston, Maudlow, Ringling, Clyde Park and Townsend. The shoulder seasons end on Feb. 15, 2022.

Elk shoulder seasons were extended by more than a month in some areas even though the vast majority of public comments were in opposition to the idea, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Many comments cited concerns about stress on elk, Ken McDonald, wildlife division administrator for FWP, said at last Friday’s meeting. Others were concerns from landowners.

In addition to extending the shoulder seasons, the commission moved to apply late antlerless elk seasons to public land in six hunting districts around the state.

The department initially proposed to apply the seasons to public land in 18 hunting districts this winter, but decided against it since comments were overwhelmingly opposed to the idea.

“Those comments along with some internal comments to us highlighted complexities associated with adding this additional component,” McDonald said.

While the department did not recommend extending shoulder seasons to public land this winter, it would consider it later as part of a biennial season-setting process, according to McDonald.

Montana first introduced elk shoulder seasons in 2015 as a tool for reducing elk numbers in areas that are over the state’s population goals.

When the state’s general rifle season isn’t enough to bring elk numbers in line with the objectives set in Montana’s Elk Management Plan, private landowners can bring in hunters for an extended season.

The seasons are normally applied to private land only and can benefit agricultural producers who lose crops to elk.

Pat Tabor, the commissioner who moved to extend the shoulder seasons, said the department has tried out various methods for managing elk, and many have been ineffective.

Later shoulder seasons will allow FWP to collect more information and address overpopulation ahead of the season-setting process, he said.

“This is a shot at trying to see what impact this has,” Tabor said. “It’s not permanent. It’s for one season.”

Byorth was in favor of opening up an elk shoulder season in HD 314 in Paradise Valley, but he opposed extending shoulder seasons in the hunting districts proposed by the department. He also opposed applying the seasons to public land.

“I believe this is illegal,” he said. “I think this is a breach of trust and I think it’s a breach of rules.”

When the state first established criteria for shoulder seasons, it was very specific not to include them on public land, according to Byorth. A public discussion should be held and criteria should be vetted ahead of any decision, he said.

“We kill more elk in Region 3 than anywhere else in the state. We have more elk hunters and a higher success rate than anywhere else,” he said. “We have three hunting districts that are over objective, and all three are barely over objective.”

Thomas Baumeister, capital leader of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said shoulder seasons can be used in a targeted way to bring elk populations in line with objectives while getting the animals off of private land.

“We made a promise here to only use the elk shoulder seasons when we need to in a very deliberate way,” he said. “With at least six hunting districts where all of a sudden these elk can be hunted on public land for six or seven months, hunters are going to go on adjacent public land and kill the elk that aren’t the problem to begin with.”

An earlier version of this article mistakenly indicated that HD 314 extends west to the Madison Range and Spanish Peaks.

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Helena Dore can be reached at hdore@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.

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