By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF WRITER
BIG SKY – Moose populations and hunting opportunities are not what they once were in the Gallatin Canyon. Since the 1970s and ’80s, moose numbers have steadily declined and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has greatly reduced their harvest objectives. Between Montana hunting districts 306, 307 and 310, which encompass the area surrounding Big Sky and the Taylor Fork region, there once were 45 moose hunting licenses offered but now there are much fewer.
In 2000, only five moose hunting permits, all for antlered bulls only, were offered throughout hunting districts 306, 307 and 310. Fast forward 10 years and the districts didn’t offer a single moose hunting license. The areas were re-opened for hunting in 2012 and currently only one permit, strictly for a bull, is offered throughout districts 306, 307 and 310.
Bozeman area Wildlife Biologist Julie Cunningham, of MT FWP, said the decision to reopen hunting in the area resulted after a population survey and public input.
“A winter 2011 flight showed 15 moose with more moose tracks in the area suggesting we counted a portion of what was actually there,” Cunningham said in an email to EBS. “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.”
The downtick in moose numbers is something Cunningham has been monitoring for some time, and it’s a trend common in other parts of the state as well.
“Regarding why moose numbers have declined, there are many potential factors,” Cunningham 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.”
She added that MT FWP is currently conducting a state-wide research project to better understand all of Montana’s moose populations.
Change may be looming, though, as the local moose population continues to shift. MT FWP has suggested to recombine hunting districts 306, 307 and 310 as part of the state-wide biennial season setting process.
“This would simplify the regulations because it would be easier for hunters to see the district number and moose license they are applying for,” Cunningham said. “Instead of applying for one license good in three small areas, it would be one license good in one larger area.”
The Fish and Wildlife Commission is set to review the proposal in December. If the commission were to decide in favor of it initially, it would go before the public for a formal comment period in January. After public input is received, it would be reconsidered for final approval.
Visit fwp.mt.gov/fishAndWildlife/diseasesAndResearch/research/moose/populationsMonitoring/default.html to learn more about moose populations and research.