Southwest Montana Elk Hunting: Part 1
Montana’s Region 3, in Southwest Montana, is the state’s major elk hunting destination by residents and nonresidents alike. This is reflected in the hunter densities, elk densities and total elk harvest. Region 3 is a vast area with over 40 hunting districts, so it’ll probably be best if I split this up into two articles. The most logical way to approach this is to follow Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ subdivision in their regulation book. In which case, I’ll take a swing at the 300 series hunting districts north of I 90, from the western half of the Crazy Mountains to Butte for article, and those 300 series districts south of I90 for the next one.
The northern tier of Region 3 includes the eastern side of the Boulder Mountains outside of Butte, the Elkhorn Mountains outside of Helena, the Bridger Mountains northeast of Bozeman, Bull Mountain, the Big Belt Mountains, and the western half of the Crazies. The Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area is the only wilderness area. These areas are mostly blessed/cursed with a lot of roads, and are near several of Montana’s major population centers. Even the one small wilderness area is not really a place you need to pack in to. What I’m getting at here is that these will not be low pressure hunts, but they can still be productive areas and are well suited to the weekend hunter or for those who have a difficult time hiking more than a few miles a day. This is an area that is lacking in extremely heavy timber, and for the most part, visibility is quite good throughout the region. Crop lands and large ranches are more common here compared to Regions 1 and 2. In both cases, this is good for the elk as there is better forage availablilty, supporting greater elk densities, but the elk hunter has deal with more frustrating refuge situations.
Region 3’s northern tier hunting districts are 312, 315, 318, 335, 339, 343, 350, 370, 380, 388, 390, 391, 392 and 393. The only two limited hunting districts in Region 3 are in this Northern Tier; districts 339 and 380. General license hunters can hunt in those two units, but can only take spike bulls. I’ll get into the pluses and minuses of those units here in a minute, but I should also point out that 388 is sort of a controlled unit too, in that you can only hunt spike bulls with the general license. But there isn’t a lot of public land to hunt, so don’t worry about it anyway. All the rest of these units include at least a little National Forest land, in addition to either BLM, state or Block Management lands that you can hunt.
Don’t cringe when you hear there is good road access to the National Forest Lands within these units. The vast majority of elk hunters are not backpackers or horsemen. Most of them are people who prefer to be truck based, and are willing to walk a little bit, then sit down and wait. Areas like this portion of Montana tend to have pretty high success rates. Success rates in these units are mostly the high teens to mid 20s, which is right in line with Colorado’s general units.
By far, the most elk are harvested out of unit 393. But this is also one of the most heavily pressured units. For those of you that have hunted the White River National Forest in Colorado, or the Nebraska National Forest in the Pine Ridge Country, you should have an idea of what kind of pressure we’re talking about here. It is difficult to get completely out of sight of other hunters (but not impossible), but there there’s a reason why all those hunters are there. Unit 393 is a small unit, but hunters kill about 60% more elk out of there than the next most productive place north of I90. While we were talking about places in regions 1 and 2 that could maybe produce one elk for every two square miles at best (.5 bull kills per square mile) unit 393 is killing 1.3 elk per square mile or about three quarters of a mile per elk kill. This area is what is referred to as the Bangtails, on the east side of the Bridger Mountains. These are more like foothills, with open hillsides and small pockets of timber which make for very productive elk hunting. However, outside of a limited stretch of National Forest Land, public access isn’t great here. It’s probably fair to assume that much of the recorded harvest is actually coming off of private ranch lands. While that’s great if you can score some land to hunt, the whole focus of these articles is for the DIY hunter.
Unit 390 has similar problems. The only public land is a small stretch of the Bridgers, but boy, there’s a lot of elk being killed in the area. Once again, it’s fair to assume that most of that is coming from private lands, but I’ve had good luck getting into elk even in that small stretch of Forest Service. With a little bit of scouting, you can find places where the elk come out of the timber to feed or water on private lands in the evening, and set yourself up accordingly.
For those looking for less of a “road hunt”, consider Hunting District 315 on the west side of the Crazy Mountains, which also produces a ton of elk (nearly one per square mile). This is an area where one can truly get away from the roads and into some rugged country. The south west portion of the Crazies would be my suggestion for someone looking to pack into some country that the truck based hunter can’t access. I still wouldn’t expect to see a mature bull back in this area, but you should have some less pressured animals. 315 has enough roads that you can won’t feel too disadvantaged if you are based out of your truck and success has averaged around 28% in the area, which is excellent for a general unit.
380 is one of Montana’s premier research herds. The country is easily accessed, and success rates are pretty good if you exclude the spike hunters (about 70%). The Elkhorn Mountains have produced some excellent bulls (FWP claims average age of the bulls are 6.5 years old), but the drawing odds are abysmal if you are looking for the chance to harvest a mature bull. Most years the odds are around 1% for the 100 or so either sex tags. This area is worth applying for, but don’t hold your breath hoping you’ll actually draw.
The drawing odds for 339 are 3x better than 380, but the land ownership pattern is what would concern me about the area. There are some Forest Service and BLM options, but they are severely limited. I don’t think I would bother, especially since your odds of drawing are just 3%, and the bull reputation isn’t any better. Maybe the only thing the area has going for it is fairly accessible country. But you have that too in unit 380. Like I said, don’t bother, unless you live right there or have some private access too.
So that’s Region 3, north of I90. There’s some good stuff to be had here, but even more good stuff to come south of I90. Next time….