HAMILTON – Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is putting 642,570 GPS locations of radio-collared elk recorded over the course of the past three years to work in developing its latest recommendation for the upcoming elk hunting season in the southern Bitterroot Valley.
Officials say the result could open up about 140 square miles to less restrictive elk hunting if the proposal is approved by the Fish and Wildlife Commission later this year.
The proposal calls for carving off portions of hunting district 250 in the West Fork of the Bitterroot and placing those areas in hunting districts 240 and 270.
HD 250 is the most restrictive elk hunting district in the Bitterroot. All elk hunters are required to draw from a very limited pool of permits as the result of an effort to protect a dwindling population of elk in the area.
Over the course of a three-year elk study in the southern Bitterroot, researchers tracked the movements of 124 adult female elk that were captured and radio-collared.
From that, FWP regional wildlife manager Mike Thompson said researchers learned there were actually three separate main elk herds that used the area.
One was named the Big Hole migratory herd. It wintered mostly in French Basin and summered in the Big Hole.
A second group was called the CB/Trinity East Fork herd. Those elk worked back and forth across U.S. Highway 93 and shared some population characteristics with the Big Hole herd.
The other herd was the ailing Upper West Fork herd that was stayed mostly above Piquett Creek, Thompson said.
Both the Big Hole and East Fork had higher reproductive rates than the herd that stayed in the Upper West Fork.
By including the portion of the East Fork herd that uses the area on the west side of the highway, the overall reproductive rates for the main West Fork herd actually look better than what they are, Thompson said.
“If the boundary was actually where it belonged, we would have detected the drop in the calf/cow ratio in the Upper West Fork sooner than what we did,” Thompson said. “We see a real management connection in splitting those herds by changing the boundaries.”
Overall, Thompson said the change will be good for hunters looking for additional opportunity.
“It adds more areas to hunting districts 270 and 240 where hunting regulations are more liberal,” he said. “Hunters will gain about 140 square miles.”
The information gleaned from the study will allow the state to manage the elk herd in the southern Bitterroot on a finer scale over the long run, Thompson said.
Thompson said he often hears from people who are worried that on-the-ground research projects will end up constraining hunting opportunities.
“What typically happens is we learn enough to be able to offer the opportunities that are really there,” he said. “We don’t have to manage with the same broad, conservative brush.
The proposed changes in hunting district boundaries are one of several proposals being considered for hunting in the Bitterroot.
Sportsmen will have a chance to learn more and voice their opinions at the first of two public hearings Tuesday in Hamilton at the Bitterroot River Inn starting at 6:30 p.m. A second hearing will be held at Darby Elementary School on Jan. 20.