Bull elk

Elk don't seem to mind the difference between Montana's varied terrain, adapting as easily to the mountains as they do to the prairies.

HAMILTON — Big game hunters heading into the Bitterroots and Sapphires should have some good opportunities to fill their freezers this fall.

Rebecca Mowry, a wildlife biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park, said elk numbers are looking pretty good in the East Fork of the Bitterroot, but they continue to struggle in the West Fork.

“The East Fork’s been pretty good during the last few years,” she said on Thursday. “Bow hunters should have a particularly good year because of the low harvest last year; the bull harvest seems to be dependent on weather, and we never had the snow we needed until after the season ended.

“We found a lot of bulls during our spring survey.”

But in the West Fork, a “perfect storm” during the past few years, including multiple predators and difficult weather conditions, continue to keep that elk population below management objectives. According to FWP spreadsheets, while the 2017 population estimates are up from 2016 — 1,069 compared to 990 in the West Fork — that’s still down by about 500 elk in the 2014 and 2015 estimates by FWP.

The estimates are based on actual observations, assuming 80 percent of the elk are counted.

In Hunting District 240 — generally along the Bitterroots in Montana — elk numbers have almost doubled in the past five years, from an estimated 715 elk in 2013 to 1,411 in 2017, and are sitting at objectives.

In HD 261 and 262 in the valley floor and Sapphires, the elk population remains above objectives and continues to grow, from an estimated 660 in 2013 to 1,103 in 2017.

Mowry said the effect of this summer’s fires on big game will be variable. She flew over the area where the Meyers fire spilled into the East Fork and said it looks good overall.

“It’s got some patchy burns, especially where it came over the East Fork,” Mowry said. “There’s a lot of shrubs and willows in the bottoms.

“Elk love fire. They like to come in and eat where it greens up afterward. The problem is, I’m not sure if there will be enough moisture before winter for the grass to grow. It looked pretty black, but it might green up.”

Mowry also expects a good mule deer harvest this year, noting that HD 270 continues to grow some trophy bucks.

“The last couple of years we have seen the population increase, which is a good sign,” she said. “There’s been a lot of studies, particularly in Idaho, on habitat and winter severity that can really impact mule deer populations.”

White-tailed deer regulations remain pretty liberal in the Bitterroot, due to their strong numbers.

The archery season started Sept. 2 and runs to Oct. 15. The two-day Youth Hunt for deer only is Oct. 19-20, and the general big game hunting season runs Oct. 21 to Nov. 26.

Mowry said there’s been some concern regarding the elk permit system, and she encourages hunters to get involved in the upcoming season-setting process that covers 2018 and 2019.

Greg Lemon, the FWP Information Bureau chief, said that comments for season settings will open on Dec. 8 and run through mid-January. FWP will hold 44 meetings around the state to get input on seasons for every species that can be hunted in Montana.

“We’ll look at season structure, including quotas,” Lemon said, adding that FWP reserves the right to adjust quotas on an annual basis.

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