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FWP seeks public input on hunting season changes

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Deadline to comment Jan. 27

By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENTAL & OUTDOORS EDITOR

BOZEMAN – Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is in the final days of a month-and-a-half-long public comment period for proposed changes to a number of hunting regulations that would take effect for the 2020 hunting season. The measure is part of the biennial season-setting process and includes proposals for deer and elk, moose, bighorn sheep and wolves, among others.

Initially, public comment was slated to close Jan. 22, however that deadline was extended to Monday, Jan. 27 at 5 p.m. The Fish and Wildlife Commission will consider the proposals for final adoption on Thursday, Feb. 13 in Helena.

In many cases, proposals for Region 3, which encompasses most of southwest Montana, seek to clarify regulations by combining select hunting districts into single larger districts or adjusting species-specific districts so that area boundaries are more consistent with other species.

As an example, FWP is proposing to combine moose hunting districts 306, 307 and 310, which include portions of the Gallatin Canyon, under the single 310 hunting district. Combined this way, moose hunting district 310 would match deer and elk hunting district 310. The department is proposing to allow a single bull moose to be harvested from this area.

“Discussions within MT FWP and with Gallatin residents and sportspersons led to the idea that if we opened the three districts together to one antlered bull license, it would retain hunter opportunity on the landscape, while keeping it at a conservative level to protect moose populations,” Bozeman area biologist Julie Cunningham told EBS last fall. She added that in recent years there’s been a downtick in moose numbers.

“Regarding why moose numbers have declined, there are many potential factors,” she said. “I’ve opportunistically documented moose mortalities since 2012 and have documented 17 mortalities on Highway 191. The next most common cause of death has been disease with winter tick infections and arterial worm infections.”

In another effort to simplify regulations and to prevent mule deer in the greater Bozeman area from becoming urbanized, according to justification documents released by FWP, there is a proposal to eliminate the 25 mule deer B licenses that were initially created in 2005, instead making either-sex mule deer hunting valid for the area’s general district 309 deer tag.

According to the documents prepared by Cunningham, “This proposal alone may not be enough to prevent urban mule deer challenges, but it should help. The proposal would allow all hunters … freedom to harvest mule deer does in the greater Bozeman area. Mule deer harvest data in HD 309 will continue to be monitored annually.”

Cunningham also reported that mule deer buck harvest is above the long-term average, which indicates the population is likely above average and could support additional hunting.

In regard to wolf hunting, the Fish and Wildlife Commission during a Dec. 5 meeting directed the department to request public input on lowering the quota from 2 to 1 in the two hunting districts adjacent to the Yellowstone National Park boundary near Gardiner and Cooke City.

Commission Vice-Chariman Rich Stuker made the initial recommendation, saying the area’s elk numbers are at objective and that there is a large cohort of individuals who come to the area to view wolves. He added that given Senate Bill 200 which was passed in 2013 and authorizes landowners to kill wolves that threaten human safety, livestock or domestic dogs, there are tools available to landowners to manage wolf conflicts. Under this authority, Montana landowners have taken between three and 12 wolves each year.

“We’re not just looking at one group of users for our wildlife. The non-consumptive users, they also have a place within our society,” Stuker said. “I’m hoping that somewhere down the road we can get that group to provide additional funding for the department as right now we all understand the hunters and the anglers pretty much fund the department.”

Among the proposals for elk hunting is the suggestion to continue many of the elk shoulder seasons—a structure that allows elk to be harvested outside of the general five-week hunting season in October and November. This measure is an effort to reduce elk populations that are over objective and in some cases also addresses concerns over the spread of the highly contagious brucellosis disease.

For the areas around Bozeman, hunting districts 312 and 317, elk numbers are still too high and future shoulder seasons are proposed to continue to Feb. 15.

Proposals for the area’s mountain ungulate populations reflect an apparent ebb in numbers. The only regulation change in the region for mountain goats looks at combining districts 327 and 328 on the south end of the Madison Range north of Quake Lake and dropping the combined quota from 4 to 2. “These two areas have not shown high enough counts to justify current harvest rates,” Cunningham wrote in the justification documents.

For bighorn sheep in the Spanish Peaks and Taylor-Hilgards, Cunningham has suggested removing the ewe licenses that were initially introduced in 2012 and 2016 following several years of the highest population counts ever recorded in the area. At the time, Cunningham said, the goal was to keep the sheep populations at a number suitable for the available winter-range habitat. However, since then the sheep have experienced years of low lamb production and severe winters that killed lambs.

“These licenses are no longer needed to regulate this population,” Cunningham wrote. “Currently, both districts are meeting population objectives but both districts have seen several years of lower-than-average recruitment.”

There are no proposed changes to the either-sex bighorn sheep tags released for these districts.

Comments on each of the proposed hunting season changes may be submitted online, emailed to fwpwld@mt.gov or by mailing them to FWP Wildlife, PO Box 200701, Helena MT 59620-0701. They are due Monday, Jan. 27 at 5 p.m.

Visit fwp.mt.gov/hunting/publicComments/2019/biennialSeasonSetting.html for more information or to view a complete list of proposals.

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