Southwest Montana Elk Hunting: Part 2
To continue on with Southwest Montana’s Region 3, let’s take a look at the bigger, wilder country south of I90. Most of the tallest peaks in Montana are down here near the Wyoming border, with Granite Peak at 12,799 feet in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area being the highest. Some portions of Southwest Montana is extremely wild and primitive with both wolves and grizzlies, while others are right near ski areas, college towns and rolling ranchlands. Districts 300 - 302, 309-311, 313, 314, 316, 317, 319-334, 340, 341, and 360-362 make up this area.
Of particular note are the areas with special regulations. 316 is the backcountry unit that makes up most of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Area and the northern border of Yellowstone National Park, and is the only area in Southwest Montana where elk can be hunted in the rut with a rifle (opens September 15th). 309 is basically just a portion of the Gallatin Valley near Bozeman where hunting is restricted to short range weapons like muzzleloaders, archery and shotguns. There’s practically no public land to hunt here anyway, so don’t worry about it. 302 and 310 are somewhat limited units in that you can’t hunt it with the general license, but there is an unlimited permit available.
Harvest is not evenly distributed out here. There are plenty of mediocre units, some pretty dreadful units and some of the best hunting opportunities in the state. Among the dreadful units, I’d avoid unit 341, as one of the worst combinations of high hunting pressure, low elk density and low success. 361 is another one of those units that receives too many hunters for too few elk. Both 361 and 341 run in the low teens in terms of success, while there are several units here that average in the high 20s to low 30s. Other units receive far more pressure than these two, but hunters are at least killing elk in them. 361 was once a good unit, down near West Yellowstone, but it’s really fallen off in recent years, with wolf predation likely responsible for some of that toll.
If you’re interested in hunting the backcountry units, 316 is no longer at the top of that list. I have little doubt that it will one day rebound, but the combination of predation and behavioral changes in the elk have made it much more difficult to hunt. Studies here have shown that the elk are no longer widely distributed, they instead from large herds as a defense mechanism to wolf predation. While there are still elk to hunted, herded up elk are very difficult to hunt, especially if you’re planning to be anywhere near the border of Yellowstone National Park, which is off limits to hunting. So, with just a little bit of hunting pressure, a large percentage of the elk in the Absaroka-Beartooths can be in the Park. Success is averaging around 16%, and in the last data set I looked at, less than 20 bulls were killed out of there. If you want to the early backcountry hunt, head to the Bob Marshall.
Hunting District 360 between Ennis and Big Sky stands pretty close to the top in terms of total elk harvest and may be among the top units in the state in terms of elk kills per square mile. But there is a ton of pressure here, especially on the weekends. The very few roads in this portion of the Gallatin and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forests really concentrate the pressure around the Hammond Creek Road coming out of Ennis and Highway 191 along the Gallatin River. Instead of trying to be truck based here, your best bet is to get back into the 250,000 acre Lee-Metcalf Wilderness Area.
Another area of high hunter harvest and good success, but with the requisite heavy pressure is unit 314 south of Livingston, along the east side of the Gallatins. One nice thing about this area is that you don’t have to be committed to hunting the backcountry. Instead, hunters can take advantage of the hay meadows in Paradise Valley, along the Yellowstone River. The forest service boundaries aren’t too high up the mountains, and with a little patience and some good scouting, you can position yourself to take advantage of elk moving back and forth. One problem with the area though is the checkerboarded lands near the Forest Service’s administrative boundary, so you’ll have to be smart and know where you are at all times.
A place that’s still special in my heart is unit 330, along the Ruby River, south of Virginia City and Alder. Statistically, it’s just a mediocre area, as it receives plenty of pressure, while producing only pedestrian numbers. But, it’s where I killed my first bull on some Block Management Lands that back up to National Forest. I really had no idea what I was doing back then, but we still managed to make it happen. Two teenagers with a bull down and no experience gutting anything without the assistance of more experienced adults was really a funny sight. And of course we had no game bags, or frame packs or anything else of that nature, so we simply carried the elk quarters down the mountain with our bare hands. Even cut slits for our hands in the rib cage and waddled down the mountain with it between us. We were covered head to toe in blood when we walked into a little bar in Alder, then mustered up the courage to order a celebratory beer and hoped we wouldn't get carded. This was also another notable moment in my history of bad or no field photos with game taken.
In that same neck of the woods are units 323 and 324, both of which are pretty productive, and sport excellent elk densities. The success rates aren’t great, at just below 20%, but there’s a lot of elk to be had, in relatively accessible country that isn’t too rugged.
You’ll notice I keep mentioning the pressure, as there are few secrets around here. Montana has a very large percentage of hunters in its population, with long seasons, so finding the few places that are both productive and not heavily hunted can be difficult. But that’s what I’m here for. Of course, in order to be productive and lightly hunted there has to be downside, otherwise there’d be more hunters. With that in mind, take a look at unit 328. It’s remote, and difficult to get to for hunters who prefer to hunt within about 2 hours from home. It’s one of the more lightly hunted units in Southwest Montana (other than 316), but also has one of the higher rates. There aren’t a ton of elk, and it’s quite rugged, but elk are quite huntable by foot without committing to a backcountry hunt.
There are a lot of good places to hunt in Southwest Montana, but if you avoid the places I mentioned staying away from and focus on the units that either produce a ton of elk, or aren’t heavily hunted, you’ll have a good time. Next up, is North Central Montana’s Region 4.