Montana Elk Hunting: West-Central

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West-Central Montana’s Region 2 is a little bit different than Northwest Montana’s Region 1.  You’re looking at a larger human population, some larger, and much more open valleys, less dense timber, fewer commercial timber operations, and no national parks, but you still have a couple of large wilderness areas.  The area we’re talking about begins just west of Helena, then Northwest towards Missoula and Southwest towards Butte, and everything west of there to the Idaho border.  You’re also starting to deal with higher elevations than in Northwest Montana.   While country above 7,000 feet was rare outside of Glacier National Park, 9,000ish foot ridges that you may actually have to cross to get to better hunting country are more common here (as opposed to just the occasional peak).

The habitat of West Central Montana is a little more conducive to good elk hunting than in Northwest Montana.  Correspondingly, the elk densities are much higher, as are success rates.  But so is the hunting pressure, as these National Forests are so close to several of Montana’s “major” population centers.  Other important notes are that you also have some totally limited units that are not valid with general elk license.

Unlike in Region 1, the top success rates are not in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area’s backcountry unit, 280 (along with 150 and 151), indicating how much better the general state of elk hunting is in Region 2 compared to Region 1.  The success rate in unit 280 is a bit lower than 150 and 151, and pressure is about twice as high as those two units (though still less than 1 hunter per square mile of public land).   Though this portion of the Bob Marshall and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas aren’t exactly in Helena’s or Missoula’s backyard, access to the southern portion of these two wildernesses is easier, and their early rifle elk season attracts a lot more hunters than the northern and central portion of the wilderness complex that makes up the Bob, Scapegoat and Great Bear.

While I’m a fan of hunting that early backcountry rifle season, there are some other attractive hunting opportunities with the general license.  But first, let’s go over the two limited bull elk hunts in Region 2.  Unit 250 is entirely limited for bulls, requiring a drawing of the 250-20 license.  The drawing odds aren’t overly stiff yet, but will likely increase with more awareness.  While it’s an extremely low pressure hunt with just 25 licenses, it’s an area that’s been heavily impacted by wolves, and success rates have been declining enough that Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has decided to limit the number of hunters here.  I have little doubt that this will improve the hunting, as there were previously over 1,300 hunters regularly hunting the area.  This is rough, roadless country though, with a large portion of the 250,000 acre Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area (plus another 1 million acres in Idaho) and the southwest corner backing up to the 2.3 million acre Frank Church Wilderness on the Idaho Border.  I’d give this hunt a wait-and-see before recommending it.  Cutting tags by 99% in an area that was still producing elk (and still is on the Idaho side of the border too) is sure to do tremendous things for trophy quality and huntability. 

Unit 282 is essentially an archery only hunt in the Blackfoot-Clearwater WMA.  There’s a lot of elk that winter in the area, but there are plenty of residents too.  The lone rifle permit is for youth only.  If you’re an archery hunter, I’d take a good look at hunting here, and you can do it with the general license. The country isn’t too rough and you won’t be far from a road.  You won’t be alone in the early seasons, but if you want to try an ambush hunt later in the year when most of the archers are ready to pick up a rifle, this is a great place to give it a try.

Units 215 and 270 are some of the top elk producing units in the region, yielding about 3 times the number of elk as some of the wilderness heavy units.  212 should also be considered, especially if you’re looking for a slightly lower pressure hunt.

Unit 215 is in the Boulder Mountains, just north of Butte, on the west side of the Continental Divide.  Though there is plenty of public land, there area is lacking in low elevation options, as the surrounding ranchlands that back up to the Forest Service extend to fairly high elevations.  Not knowing any better at the time, this is an area where I’ve been frustrated by viewing elk on private lands below me.  Hunt this area earlier in the season, not later, when the refuge situation will be less of an issue.

If you’re looking for a productive area, with good road access, consider unit 270.  It’s pretty heavily hunted, but there are a lot of roads and logging activity, which prevents the hunter bottlenecks that are so frustrating in places with just a few access points, then one or two additional roads with a single trailhead off of each of them.  A lot of elk are killed here, and you won’t have to 20 miles from a road.  For the wilderness hunter, you still have the option of hitting the southern portion of the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, which isn’t nearly as rugged as the northern end.  There’s a lot of heavy timber back in the wilderness area, but there’s also a fair number of natural openings from old fires, meadows, and alpine tundra.

photo by Marie Richman

Finally, for a bit of a compromise, consider unit 212.  While this unit does not produce nearly as many elk per square for hunters as 270, it’s almost as productive as 215, yet has about half as many hunters per square mile as either of them.  212 primarily encompasses the Flint Creek Range north of Georgetown, west of Deer Lodge and East of Phillipsburg (in other words, the middle of nowhere).  There is no designated wilderness area, but the peaks, lakes and alpine country around Racetrack Peak may as well be because you can get a long way from a road here.  The lower portions of the National Forest here have plenty of roads, so this area can work well for both early and late season hunts.

There’s no shortage of options in Region 2, other than for those looking for a plains elk hunt.  The mix of burned, big timber, logged country, low, rolling mountains and high, sharp peaks can provide nearly any kind of elk hunting experience you might want.  The elk density is also much higher here than in Region 1, so it’s easier to find some country that’ll produce for you.  Up next, Southwest Montana….