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Updated elk population counts underscore importance of improving management

The most recent elk population counts show a disturbing trend of Montana’s elk herd increasing to crisis levels in many areas of the state. Three quarters of Montana’s hunting districts have an elk population above the sustainable population objective set by the Montana Fish & Game Commission, with over thirty districts at more than double the objective number.

“This has been the trend for years—the elk population continues to grow far beyond what the biologists estimate as a healthy, sustainable level,” said Chuck Denowh, the policy director of United Property Owners of Montana. “Today we are at nearly double the number of elk that we should have in Montana.”

The statewide elk objective is 92,138 animals. The Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks estimates there were 170,000 elk in Montana in 2020. Montana law requires that FWP manage elk populations in a way that reaches sustainable population objectives. For over a decade they’ve failed to meet that statutory requirement.

The hunting districts that are the furthest from objective population levels are the districts in which the Fish & Game Commission has limited hunting opportunity by imposing special permit draws. Of the twenty-four permit draw districts, all but two are over objective. Ten of the permit draw districts are more than five times over the objective level, with one district at more than twenty-times the objective population.

“There’s an obvious correlation here,” said Denowh. “In those districts where hunting opportunity is severely restricted by permit draws, we see fewer elk killed, resulting in exploding populations. The landowners in these districts are overrun with elk, and to add insult to injury they can’t even hunt on their own land unless they’re lucky enough to draw a permit. Eliminating the limited permit districts would be a great first step in fixing our broken elk management.”