Big Game Season Elk Forecast

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From their antlers to their bugle, their ivories to their size, elk capture a hunter’s imagination in a way no other species does. Then there is the way a bull simply vaporizes at the edge of a meadow.

In the past few years, there have been more elk “vaporizing” than harvested. Why? Without cold temperatures and snow to move elk to lower elevations so hunters can track them, the hunting has been tough.

“We are building into a situation where, if and when we have good tracking snow, we are going to have some tremendous elk hunting opportunities,” said Gary Hammond, FWP Wildlife Division management bureau chief. “The keys to a good elk harvest are heavy snow, cold temperatures and access to elk on both private and public lands.”

Mild conditions during hunting season, and hunters’ limited access to areas where some herds gather, have combined to produce several years of lackluster harvests.

Hammond said serious elk hunters are well into planning their hunts and contacting landowners to secure hunting access. No one wants to be caught short if this is the year Montana’s traditional winter cold and snow returns.

Here is the outlook for elk hunting around the state:

Western Montana

In northwestern Montana in the Clark Fork area, antlerless elk and bull numbers are slightly above the 10-year average and in other parts of the northwest are slightly below objective. Most bulls harvested are about three years old. In west central Montana, around Missoula, elk populations are generally high with liberal hunting season regulations, including antlerless permits, unlimited A-7 licenses on private lands in portions of certain hunting districts, and some extended seasons. Elk hunting opportunities will be good to excellent, if the weather cooperates. In 2002 in western Montana, FWP regions 1 and 2 saw more than 40,500 hunters spend over 331,000 hunter days to harvest 4,587 elk.

Central Montana

In the north, elk are plentiful with liberal hunting available, in general. There are significantly more antlerless elk hunting opportunities and especially liberal seasons in hunting districts where access is more difficult. In south central Montana, elk populations continue to expand, in part due to poor hunting weather and smaller harvests the past couple of years. A low ratio of about eight or 10 calves to 100 cows this spring in the Gallatin and Yellowstone drainages was about the only negative in an otherwise very positive picture. The distribution of elk has, in some cases, been affected by drought or fire. Elk hunting opportunities are excellent with liberal seasons in south central Montana hunting districts. Hunters who arrange access in advance should have good luck if there is cold and some snow for tracking. In central Montana in 2002, FWP regions 3 and 4 saw 68,700 hunters spend 438,560 hunter days to harvest 15,347 elk.

Eastern Montana

Elk populations continue to increase, resulting in liberal hunting opportunities for antlerless elk throughout the east, except in the Line Creek area of the Absarokee elk management unit where antlerless hunting is by permit only this year. In the Miles City area, hunters will find elk have moved from some traditional ranges to areas closer to water, due to the drought. Hunters who obtain hunting access on private land and who spend some time scouting for elk should have good hunting. In 2002, in the Billings area, 6,660 hunters spent 34,800 hunter days to harvest 1,359 elk. In 2002, in the far eastern part of the state, 4,000 hunters spent 25,000 hunter days to harvest 1,140 elk.

The 2003 big game hunting regulations provide details on the elk hunting seasons and regulations for each hunting district. Regulations are available on the FWP web site at, and from all FWP offices and license providers.