The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) has issued several proposed changes to the hunting regulations in the Bitterroot Valley. The proposed changes include reducing the season for some animals, reducing the number of tags, and eliminating B licenses in some districts, while liberalizing them in other districts. Some existing hunting district boundaries are also proposed to be changed, shrinking some and enlarging others and a whole new hunting district has also been proposed.
In Hunting Districts (HD) 204, 240, 250, 261 and 270, the proposed change would reduce the either-sex season for white-tailed deer from season-long to the first nine days of the season. Youth would be allowed to hunt season-long for either-sex white-tailed deer. 50 antlerless B licenses would be added in HD 204, 100 in HD 240 and 25 in HD 261.
According to the agency, a sharp decline in buck harvest was evidenced in these districts in 2007 and buck harvest has varied around a moderate level in the districts since that time. The population in HD 204 appears to be the most suppressed and management is complicated by the fact that it has a boundary line running along the bottom of Rock Creek, which is heavily hunted. They also note that white-tailed deer populations are generally down on publicly accessible lands in many parts of the Bitterroot watershed.
FWP proposes to eliminate all B-licenses for antlerless mule deer in HD 270. The objective, according to the agency, is to reduce pressure on low and declining mule deer populations and allow every opportunity for a more rapid rebound in numbers.
All ten Wilderness Area rifle permits for mule deer bucks in HD 250 would be eliminated. The 25 Wilderness Area rifle permits in HD 240 would be extended to run from October 1-November 16. According to the agency, only 18 of the 25 permits were subscribed in 2012 and extending the season may attract more hunters to the district. The elimination of the permits in HD 250 corresponds with a boundary change that would also reduce the wilderness acreage available in the district for using the permits.
Changes in HD 240 include liberalizing the antlerless deer and elk harvest on mostly private lands outside the National Forest boundary. Outside the National Forest in the district it would allow the general deer license to be valid for either-sex white-tailed deer season-long, and antlerless mule deer and elk for the first nine days of the general season. This proposal, according to the agency, aims to protect and grow deer and elk on the National Forest while providing generous harvest opportunities for the landowners on resident deer and elk in the valley bottom, which is south of Carlton Creek.
Hunting in HD 260 would become “archery only.” Over-the-counter B licenses for antlerless white-tailed deer would be reduced from five to three. An either-sex mule deer would be added to the general license along with the either-sex white-tailed deer valid from September 6-January 15. One over-the-counter B license for antlerless mule deer, valid only in HD 260, would be added.
Proposed boundary changes would affect HD 240, 250 and 270. The agency wants to adjust the boundaries to better fit with elk and deer movement patterns and the agency’s different management needs in the different districts.
The proposed boundary changes would transfer the most accessible and productive fall mule deer habitat from HD 250 to HD 240 and 270 and HD 250 would be reduced in size. As a result the agency also wants to reduce limited buck permits in HD 250 from 85 to 40.
All five antlerless elk B-licenses valid in the northeast portion of the district also would be eliminated if that area gets transferred into HD 240 as proposed.
The proposed changes would also create an entirely new Hunting District 262 to address deer and elk damage to private lands in the area. The new district would be 3 to 5 miles wide, bounded on the west by the Eastside Highway and on the east by the Bitterroot Irrigation District Canal (Big Ditch). It would be about 30 miles long, stretching from Skalkaho Road (south of Hamilton) to Eightmile Road (east of Florence).
These boundaries outline a relatively flat, open, subdivided, agricultural and residential landscape, comprised almost entirely of private land. The 2014 season would run from October 25-November 30, with no weapons restrictions, which is similar to the current situation. An HD 261 permit would be required to hunt mule deer bucks in HD 262.
A feature of HD 262 would be a primitive weapons season for either-sex white-tailed deer and antlerless mule deer and elk, running from September 6-October 24. The purpose is to address the growing number of resident deer and elk on private lands while growing deer and elk populations on public lands.
The rules would be changed in HD 270 so that the general elk license is valid for youth during the archery-only season as well as the general rifle season. To be consistent with changes proposed for HD 240 and 261, the agency wants to restrict the general license opportunity for youth in HD 270 to antlerless only. Youth would be able to obtain an unlimited permit for antlered elk by a March 15 deadline if they so desired.
The agency is also seeking public comment on an adjustment in the antlerless opportunity for youth, such as making the youth opportunity valid only in the first nine days of the season, to improve and properly regulate this opportunity in an area where elk congregate late in the season. This proposal was put forward to address a chronic problem, but one which came into the spotlight this fall, when a group of youth hunters opened fire into an elk herd on the lower slopes up the East Fork of the Bitterroot killing nine elk in five minutes.
Several youth hunters fired, some from and across roads and onto private land where permission had not been granted. Five citations were issued to the youths’ parents, according to Vivaca Crowser, FWP public information officer. She said it is not an isolated incident but a chronic problem in the Bitterroot where elk are often visible in large numbers from nearby roads.
“It puts hunters in a position that is very challenging, both legally and ethically,” said Crowser. She said young, inexperienced hunters are the most vulnerable to doing the wrong thing in those situations.
FWP has planned a series of 43 public hearings across the state to gather public comment on the proposed changes. Meetings are scheduled in Hamilton at the Bitterroot River Inn at 6:30 on Tuesday, January 7; in Darby at the Elementary School at 6:30 on Monday, January 20; and Missoula at the Double Tree Hotel at 6:30 on Tuesday, January 21. The FWP Commission will consider the changes at a meeting in February.
Public comment on the proposed regulation changes may be submitted at the local meetings or online at fwp.mt.gov. Written comments may be sent to: FWP Wildlife Bureau, Attn: Public Comment, P.O. Box 200701, Helena MT 59620-0701.