Elk hunters who get a permit to hunt the Bitterroot Valley’s most popular hunting district won’t be required to stay within its boundaries when they take to the field this fall.
After hearing a groundswell of local opposition to including HD 270 in a statewide proposal that requires elk hunters with permits to limit their hunting to a single district, the Montana Fish and Game Commission voted Friday to exclude the East Fork of the Bitterroot.
Montana Fish and Game’s new Region 2 Commissioner, Jana Waller, made the motion to exempt HD 270.
It passed by a vote of 4-3.
Up until now, HD 270 was the only district in the state that required hunters to obtain an “unlimited” bull elk permit to hunt there. To obtain the “unlimited” permit, hunters give up their opportunity to put in for a more coveted elk permit elsewhere in the state.
The state proposed a similar “unlimited” permit system for other hunting districts in the latest season setting, but that idea mostly didn’t survive the season-setting process.
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HD 270 remains the only district in the state that required an unlimited permit to hunt bull elk.
Last year more hunters than ever opted to get one of the unlimited permits. There were 3,365 HD 270 permits issued.
“Unit 270 is a unique unit in terms of elk and geography,” Waller said Monday. “Originally a general unit, it was changed years back due to the bull to cow ratios dipping too low when early weather drives the elk into 270. For biological reasons it was changed to an unlimited-style tag.”
It takes winter weather to drive elk over the Big Hole divide into the East Fork of the Bitterroot. Because of that, hunters with an HD 270 permit like the freedom to be able to hunt other general elk hunting districts in the state earlier in the season.
After reading “many emails” and listening to sportsmen at regional meetings, Waller heard an “overwhelming disappointment” over the proposed change that would limit elk hunters with an HD 270 unlimited permit to hunt only in that district.
“I felt it was my job as Region 2 Commissioner to propose an option of exemption to the new ‘hunt your permit’ regulation,” Waller said in an email.
Waller’s first season-setting session was a tumultuous one, with sportsmen in Region 2 offering a higher number of emailed comments than anywhere else in the state.
“In the past two months I’ve sat down with numerous conservation and hunting/fishing-related interest groups along with dozens of lengthy phone calls and literally thousands of e-mail correspondence with the hunters from Region 2 and around the state,” Waller said. “The public has been very vocal about changes to the deer and elk regulations.”
“Thanks to the hard work of the biologists and Region 2 employees there were many original proposals tabled that the public had concerns about, especially in terms of deer, and other ideas that moved forward for biological sense,” she said.
Waller said it’s important for sportsmen to remember that a new elk management plan is due in 2023.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Bitterroot-based biologist Rebecca Mowry said regulations didn’t dramatically change in the Bitterroot Valley.
There will be a new, over-the-counter, antlerless elk permit for the river bottom on private land only. Hunters will be required to use special weapons like bows and muzzleloaders.
A late-season hunt for antlerless elk on private land in HD 204 will run through Jan. 8. That season had been tried earlier. The latest rendition will end the season a little earlier than before.
And a boundary change was enacted in HD 240 that will move the boundary south into the Carlton Creek area. The district north of the boundary line will be managed by the Missoula office.
The West Fork of the Bitterroot, HD 250, will again require a permit to hunt bull elk. Successful permit holders will be required to hunt in that district. Last year, 1,162 hunters put in for 45 permits. In 2019, 32 of the 45 permit holders harvest an elk in HD 250.