Among locals, "Got your elk yet?” is a common November greeting. The presumptions are clear: You know which friends hunt and that elk are the big prize. "With a shrill cry, half-ton frame, and massive rack—we’re talking about bull elk here, ...nothing else approaches the intensity of the elk-hunting experience. " Outside Bozeman, Fall, 2016.
I recognize the importance of hunting to game management, and I respect the hunting tradition but really don’t understand some men’s passion for hunting. It may be like opera, some individuals organize their lives around the Santa Fe opera season, others the Montana elk season.
Tom Dickson is the editor of the excellent Montana Outdoors Magazine, a publication of the Department of Fish,Wildlife and Parks. He writes, "To a beginner - whether resident or nonresident - trying to learn about elk hunting in Montana can seem like entering a secret society." Elk hunting's adventure is preceded by much enjoyable planning and practicing. Also, it's excellent food: "Elk meat... has converted more vegetarians than bacon." Most people prefer eating cow elk but bulls, the bigger the rack the better, are the prize.
Montana's elk and deer rifle season traditionally begins the fourth week of October and ends the Sunday after Thanksgiving. This year I am quite happy it's over. The reason? Rationing hunters' access to our ranch is a growing problem. I received calls early in the morning and late at night, some from people I hadn't heard from since last year's season. And total strangers drove into our driveway asking to hunt. I understand why when people see herds of elk on our place.
We also provide trout fishing in our chain of five ponds, all linked by a coldwater spring creek. Fly fishing presents a far smaller rationing problem, probably because people can't see our trout from the road. Elk however are nearly as obvious as our steers, especially when in a herd of fifty or more and in sight from U.S. 191 or Cottonwood Road south of Gallatin Gateway.
Over the past two decades, the Montana average success for bulls and cows combined has been roughly twenty percent. The average Montana hunters spends about ten days hunting before killing an elk. And only about four percent of elk hunters kill a 6x6 or larger bull. (On our ranch this year four hunters got a 6 x 6 or larger. The smallest bull taken on our ranch was a 4 x 4.)
Hunting private land
Success rates on our place are high indeed--and hunting is easy. Many simply walk hidden in the dry Kleinschmidt Canal to approach elk feeding in our alfalfa fields. Only the next quarter or half mile requires stealth and hunting prowess.
Tom Dickson wrote: "The best way to get access to private land is to ask politely well before the season begins." This is surely correct, but we don't charge for hunting and hence don't ration by price. With excellent hunting success and a price of zero dollars, demand far exceeds our supply. This means I must create a way to ration access. Here is my system for rationing next year's elk hunting.
First, I'll give preferred access to people who help out at the ranch. The commercial ag work is taken care of but I always need volunteer assistance with outdoor amenities. This isn't skilled work, for example, whacking weeds by pond and stream banks, trimming branches along trails and roads, and maintaining the pavilion we offer to visitors.
Second, I'll give favorable consideration to those who volunteer for Cancer Support Community, Eagle Mount, and similar groups' recreational programs on our ranch. Third, hunters should read and be able to discuss Jim Posewitz's Beyond Fair Chase: The Ethics and Tradition of Hunting. I'll also direct them to FREE Insights on hunting and conservation. If they aren't interested in reading our thoughts on conservation and wildlife, I'm not interested in having them shoot here.
Finally, did the hunter display gratitude for access? One deer hunter gave us a gift certificate and some fine lumber. An elk hunter spent a week working on FREE's office addition. Others helped out with our fishery. Successful hunters who neglect us, not even offering us meat from the animals we fed, are off the list. If they ask next year I'll give them this insight. They know why we must and surely they'll understand how we will allocate hunting and fishing privileges.