By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – The Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission approved a proposal Aug. 10 to extend the 2017 elk hunting season west of Bozeman to address changing elk migration patterns and landowner concerns.

The extended season, termed a late shoulder season, is effective for all lands within the northern portion of hunting district 311, excluding National Forest land. The area extends north of Highway 84 toward Three Forks, stretching between Bozeman and Harrison. The new shoulder season will follow after the general rifle season, beginning Nov. 27 and continuing through Feb. 15, 2018.

Region 3 wildlife biologist Julie Cunningham says this extended season is an effort to reduce property damage caused by increased numbers of elk migrating into the region for the winter, and will also address concerns about brucellosis transfer when elk come into contact with cattle.

Historically, these elk spent the winters in the higher-elevation area south of Highway 84 near Big Sky and the Spanish Peaks, but a number of factors have led elk to migrate into areas owned by relatively small farms, ranches and dairies where elk have not been seen for generations. Migration typically coincides with snowfall and the elk herd generally does not move into the area until after the general elk hunting season closes.

“The original cause of this expansion may relate to snow conditions, forage availability and predators,” Cunningham said.

Beginning in 2009, biologists and landowners observed a herd of approximately 1,800 elk expanding its range north of Highway 84 and the new distribution pattern has changed markedly in the last few years as the elk seek high-value forage. According to Cunningham, elk found unprotected hay stackyards and grain left over in fields after harvest, which causes a herd memory of the readily available forage and continues to draw them back to the area.

“1,800 elk can devour an average-sized unprotected [hay] stackyard in a matter of days,” Cunningham said. This might be hay intended to feed livestock through the winter, or could be hay stored for later sale.

An added concern for landowners and biologists is a reported 22.5 percent seroprevalence of brucellosis in the herd, meaning 22 percent of sampled elk were found to have brucellosis present in their blood. Brucellosis is a self-sustaining bacterial infection that can be transmitted between species, and causes abortion in infected wildlife and livestock.

“[Twenty-two percent] is high when it comes to a herd of elk. Twenty-two of 100 elk could have it,” said Montana Department of Livestock veterinarian and brucellosis specialist Eric Liska. “When you start saying one in every five animals are potentially going to be affected … that’s a lot of animals.”

The major concern, Liska said, is the potential spread of brucellosis to humans through ingestion of infected food products. Should infected elk mingle with area cattle, ranchers may be required to quarantine their herds and undergo expensive testing and vaccinations prior to selling or even moving the cattle.

Since the initial change in the area elk migration, FWP has authorized specific measures in order to aid landowners, however the actions were ineffective in dealing with the large elk herd. Efforts included small, specialized hunts on individual properties and the use of herders to haze elk away from hay and cattle.

“When you start thinking about ranchers in Montana, they’re huge advocates for the land and the wildlife on that land,” Liska said. Landowners care about wildlife, but are also concerned about their own livelihood, he added.

Overall, the objective of the shoulder season is not to drastically change the elk population number, but to change the migration pattern, Cunningham said. Biologists hope that hunting pressure as elk move into their newly established winter range will encourage the herd to reestablish their winter range back to the south toward the Spanish Peaks.

To assess the effectiveness of this new plan, area biologists will survey the elk population during winter flights and document herd locations. Landowner input will also be recorded.

In order to hunt during the late shoulder season, hunters can use a general elk license or a hunting district 311 antlerless B license, which is available for purchase through the FWP surplus tag system at fwp.mt.gov. One thousand of these licenses will be available, a twofold increase from the previous year.

Cunningham says hunters are welcome to call the Region 3 Headquarters office in Bozeman in order to learn more about specific areas within the hunting district that are experiencing elk pressure. Call (406) 994-4042 to learn more.