Somewhere between obsidian arrowheads and satellite-guided arrow locators, Montana archers must find a middle ground.

“This is the watershed moment,” Montana Bowhunters Association Joelle Selk told the state Fish and Wildlife Commission last week. “If we allow the lighted nock, what’s the next piece of equipment deemed useful? We want to develop a set of criteria to measure what are the merits to allowing another change of archery equipment. Does this particular device or piece of equipment respect the fair-chase nature of bowhunting? Will it continue to make bowhunters effective within the bounds of a close-range sport? We long ago left the primitive. Now we have to be deliberative about what steps we take next, to enjoy the opportunities and seasons we have.”

The work session in Helena wasn’t focused on a specific new regulation or legislation. Rather, it was a time to talk about how Montana’s roughly 45,000 bowhunters see their sport changing, and how that affects the rules they play by.

“We have tremendous archery opportunity compared to anybody else in the country,” Missoula archer Paul Roush said after the meeting. “We start on the first Saturday in September and we’re not done until Jan. 15. The biggest fear is that our success rate could be going up too much with technology, so the Department (of Fish, Wildlife and Parks) curtails the season because the rate is too high.”

Statewide, Montana general-season rifle hunters bring home game between 6.5 and 7.5 percent of the time. Archers report success about 4.5 percent of the time.

“At one point in time, archery was considered a non-consumptive sport because the success was so low,” FWP Commissioner Gary Wolfe said. “The addition of compound bows and bow sights and all those things that make bow hunters more effective have changed things. If it ever gets to the point where archer success approaches rifle hunters, we’re having an impact on the resource.”

Hunting with a bow and arrow requires the archer to get much closer to the animal compared to rifle hunters – 20 to 40 yards compared to 100 to 400 yards. FWP has tried to balance that difficulty with expanded opportunities, including a season that overlaps the elk rutting period of early fall. Elk in breeding mode tend to be less cautious and will respond to bugle calls they typically ignore during the general hunting season of October and November.

But other parts of the country that lack Montana’s large game populations and extensive public land have compensated with a technological free-for-all in the archery industry. Bow-mounted range finders, laser-guided aiming systems, and GPS-enabled arrows are some of the more common additions available in the national hunting market.

Lighted nocks have been a frequent point of argument in both bowhunter groups and the state Legislature. A tiny light at the end of an arrow doesn’t change its flight, but it does make it easier for the archer to see where it went. Critics say it encourages archers to take shots they might not otherwise risk. Proponents say it helps find wounded animals and recover lost arrows that might otherwise slice open a farmer’s tire or boot next spring.

Then there are modifications to the idea of the bow and arrow. Several states have put mechanical or gas-powered crossbows on par with human-powered bows. Many areas allow rimfired exploding arrow tips intended for wild boar.

The gray area tends to develop around modifications intended to help people with handicaps participate in the sport. At last week’s meeting, the commissioners inspected a “draw-lock” device that allowed a handicapped person to shoot a traditional bow. But the mechanics of the device are a short step away from a basic crossbow. Allowing draw-locks risks a ride on the slippery slope of what-ifs – Can non-handicapped people use them too? Can they just use crossbows instead? If the handicap is something other than strength or mobility, are other assistance technologies also OK?

“I have nothing against getting more people into the sport,” Selk told the commissioners. “But other states see it as recruitment tool, or a deer management tool. But in states where the disabled community is allowed to use crossbows, then you have public comment for youth using it, or people over a certain age, and with enough public response it’s open to everybody.”

Wolfe said the FWP commissioners don’t have firm measuring sticks to evaluate whether some new thing is right or wrong for Montana. But the challenge is a recurring one. In recent months, the commissioners have confronted hunter use of drone aircraft to scout wildlife movements (prohibited) and potential mini-motorized watercraft in otherwise inaccessible streams (under public review).

“We’re all concerned about technology creep,” Wolfe said. “We try to get ahead of it before it creates user problems. We all realize Montana is really special. We have a resource here many other states no longer have.”

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