By Jessianne CastleENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR
BOZEMAN – Elk are most vulnerable when winter melts away in the early spring, leaving the grazers with depleted fat reserves and limited food options. This critical stage coincides with bull elk dropping their antlers in preparation for the summer’s new growth cycle, which spurs many outdoorsmen and women into a real-life treasure hunt for their shed antlers.
Acutely aware of the harsh conditions elk face at the turn of the seasons, a group of Montana sportsmen are working to encourage responsible horn hunting across the state this year, asking shed hunters to wait until at least April before commencing the hunt. The initiative is led by Montana chapters of the Mule Deer Foundation, Safari Club International and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Bozeman area wildlife biologist Julie Cunningham stressed the importance of this campaign in an email received by EBS. “Conditions are harsh right now,” she wrote. “Elk have their lowest fat reserves come April and these late-season deep snows can make them vulnerable. Preventing unnecessary displacement may help reduce stress and winter-kill.”
“This awareness campaign has gotten a lot of folk’s attention,” said Scott Falagan of the Mule Deer Foundation’s Bitterroot Chapter. “It’s really great to see how many folks are supporting this.”
To further promote this awareness, conservation organizations in Missoula and Ravalli counties will hold a drawing on April 1 for a Kimber Hunter Rifle, an opportunity exclusive to county residents who made the pledge. Falagan encourages those living outside of these counties to ask their local organizations for this level of support.
“As an individual, our small efforts can make a significant difference,” he wrote in a letter promoting the initiative. “Please understand, wildlife is not in the clear come April 1. Tread lightly and use discretion.”
Throughout the state, wildlife officials seek to protect wildlife winter range with Wildlife Management Area designations that are closed to human activity during the winter and spring. In the Big Sky area, the Gallatin Wildlife Management Area, which is within the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area, is closed until May 15.
In addition to shed hunters, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks asks all recreationists to give wildlife space in the coming months. In a March 11 press release, the department requested that all snowmobilers, skiers and snowshoe enthusiasts avoid areas where animals are likely to be bedded down, and, in order to prevent a chase scenario, to keep all dogs on leashes when elk or deer are present.
“The stress of a chase alone can eventually lead to the death of the animal,” the release said.