Bitterroot elk 

Hunts shrink in West Fork

Dramatic elk population declines in the West Fork of the Bitterroot Valley prompted Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) this month to take equally dramatic steps to protect the animals. Now the West Fork is subject to a nearly unprecedented limitation of hunting opportunities: a mere 25 permits—offered by draw—for the 2011 general season.

"This is only the second place in the state where it's happened, in my memory, in recent history," says FWP Region 2 Wildlife Manager Mike Thompson. "It's extremely unusual. This is a place we almost never go."

FWP spokesperson Vivaca Crowser adds the measure is the latest step in "a progression of tightening up the hunting regulations" in the West Fork. Last season FWP issued restrictions on antlerless elk harvests in hopes of increasing the cow-calf ratio in the area. But Thompson says it's extremely uncommon for the agency to limit bull harvests, as it is now.

"In most cases, bull harvest will not control the trajectory of an elk population," Thompson says. "But in this particular case, the calf survival is so low that we're not recruiting bulls in high enough numbers to ensure getting an adequate breeding population of bulls."

The decision, which Crowser says is now in a 30-day public comment period, proves particularly troubling for outfitters in Ravalli County. Scott Boulanger, owner of Circle KBL Outfitters and a board member for the Bitterroot Elk Working Group, equates the restrictions to an elimination of one-quarter of the hunting landscape in the Bitterroot Valley. That impacts the entire hunting public and puts increased pressure on neighboring elk populations, he says. It also hits hard those who rely on out-of-state hunters for income.

"Non-residents, by statute, can only get up to 10 percent of those tags," Boulanger says. "So there can be no more than three non-residents in the West Fork. That's the real killer right there."

Despite the business loss, Boulanger and many of his fellow outfitters support FWP's attempts to preserve the West Fork herd. It's a frustrating situation for all, Boulanger says, especially considering the existing limitations on mule deer and mountain lion hunting. But conservation remains a priority for the outfitting industry; last year, Boulanger himself requested that the state close elk hunting in the West Fork altogether.

"First and foremost is the resource," Boulanger says. "Then is profitability."

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