Montana is one of those states that many hunters dream of. As a kid growing up in California, the mystique of hunting the 4th largest state, with less than a million residents, and a name that essentially means mountain played a big part in choosing to go to school at Montana State University to study wildlife management. I figured if I was going to study wildlife, I needed to go to where the wildlife was. And wildlife certainly abounds in Montana. For most out of state hunters, elk is the main event. My family took road trips nearly every year up to Yellowstone, and the image of those bulls lazing around in the summer and fighting in the early fall on the lawns around Mammoth Hot Springs, or along the Madison and Firehole Rivers outside of West Yellowstone certainly left an indelible impression in me as a teenager (I know, I know, much of this is in Wyoming, but back then, when I thought of Wyoming I thought of jackelope country). One of our traditions was for my brothers, myself and my mom get up just a little before dawn and cruise around the Park looking for wildlife. Elk and deer were always my thing, while the others generally wanted to see moose.
Montana certainly doesn’t have the elk numbers of Colorado, but at around 150,000, it’s easily number two in terms of elk population. Really only the western 1/3 of the state is what you’d call “elk country”, and the Northern Yellowstone elk herd epitomized the term overpopulation after the National Park Service quit culling, while at the same time creating the Grand Old Days of elk hunting in Montana. The central 1/3 has smaller populations of elk in a few areas, while the eastern 1/3 isn’t totally devoid of elk, but the populations are even more scattered.
As with every other state in the West, Montana has their own way of doing things when it comes to licensing. Residents are treated to an unlimited, over the counter general tag good for the month and a half archery season and one month long rifle season. Then there is a June 1 drawing for the limited areas. Nonresident licenses are limited to just 17,000 tags between elk only and elk/deer combination licenses. The deadline to apply for the nonresident license is March 15. After Montana increased the price of this license to $812 for 2011(there used to be outfitter sponsored, guaranteed licenses, whose fees paid for the Block Management public access program, and the deficit was made up by increasing all nonresident license fees), so for the first time in about 20 years, elk licenses were available after the draw in a small gesture of defiance by the travelling hunting community. But when those leftovers went on sale, they were gone in a heartbeat. More than likely, the system will go back to what it was, where one could expect to draw every other year. Montana operates on a bonus point system, where your odds increase with each unsuccessful year, but never guarantee you the elk license. If a nonresident drew an elk license, only then could he apply for the limited areas in June with the residents. If you’re only interested in hunting the best areas throughout the West, this is probably a maddening system to you. On the other hand, if you’ve got the time, there aren’t many other states that will allow you to hunt from early September until late November on the same license in the same unit.
As I alluded to earlier, most of the elk and most of the mountainous country, and along with that, most of the National Forests are in Western Montana. As you head north in Montana, the forests become denser, taller, darker woods and are less ideal elk habitat than the taller mountains, and drier, more open forests in Southern and South Central Montana. Montana’s highest elevations are down in the Beartooths along the Wyoming and Yellowstone Nation Park border, not up in the more dramatic Glacier National Park. Timberline in this portion of the Northern Rockies is closer to 10,000 feet, rather than mid 11,000 foot range in the Central Rockies. Montana boasts some extensive National Forests, most notably the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Lolo and Flathead National Forests, each of which is over 2 million acres.
Although Montana’s wilderness areas are not on the scale of Idaho’s largest, it still has some very extensive roadless complexes for the backcountry hunter, along with some unique hunting opportunities. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Area gets a lot of the press, and it is Montana’s largest at just over 1 million acres. However, Montana’s portion of the Selway-Bitterroot (1.3 million total, but 250K in MT) and Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Areas (920K in MT) should not be overlooked as they are in better elk country.
Since I’m not writing this as a geography lesson, lets get back to business. What’s the point in knowing about these areas? Hunting Districts 150, 151 and 280 make up the Bob Marshall Wilderness(and borders the Sun River Game Preserve), while unit 316 is within the Absaroka Beartooth. These are considered Montana’s backcountry units, and with a general license, you can rifle hunt them beginning September 15th. Yes, that’s the rut. But don’t think you can just waltz on into these units. There are a handful of roads that will get you within a few miles of the hunting district boundaries, and as far as I can tell, it’s almost impossible to day hunt them from your truck. When I hunted 316 about 10 years ago, it was about a 7 mile hike just from the wilderness boundary to the ridge where we could begin hunting.
Other areas are much more conventional, with rifle seasons beginning the week before Halloween, and going until Thanksgiving weekend. Now just because the general tags are limited for nonresidents, don’t go thinking you’re going to have a significant amount of ground to yourself. Most of Montana’s human population is also in the western 1/3 of the state, and Montana boasts one of the highest percentages of hunters among its residents. Last I read, it was about 25% of the population, compared to about 7% in a place like Colorado. And every one of those Eastern Montana hunters wants to come west to elk hunt too. So if you have the chance to hunt in Montana, make sure you schedule a few weekdays to be out if you’re going to be within 100 miles of Bozeman, Helena, Missoula, Livingston, Butte, Great Falls, Billings, Dillon, or Kalispell.
Montana lends itself to breaking up the state regionally based off of the seven regions that Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and I’ll try to do that sometime here this summer. As a college student, I made the mistake of bouncing around the state elk hunting a different area nearly every weekend. While I wasn’t super productive by doing that, that experience certainly lent itself to giving you some personal insight on hunting much of Central and Western Montana in future articles. To be continued...