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Montana may limit popular antler-hunting opening day

January 8, 2010 | 12:40 pm

Shed elk antler.

Hunting for shed elk antlers has become so popular in Montana that officials are considering enacting regulations to limit opening day access in some areas, to protect both the landscape and the elk populating it.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department is proposing that only foot traffic be allowed and each person be limited to collecting two antlers on the day that Wildlife Management Areas that have been closed for the winter are reopened to the public.

The area of greatest concern is Sun River Wildlife Management Area, according to the Independent Record.

Sometimes compared to the Great Oklahoma Land Rush of 1893, more than 200 people on foot, bicycles, horseback and in vehicles gather at the main gate or along fences around Sun River, which reopens to public access on May 15. At noon, the gate is swung open and hundreds of people swarm in, spreading out over the landscape to hunt for shed antlers.

Department commissioner Ron Moody received numerous complaints about Sun River’s opening day last year when he attended a meeting of the Sun River Working Group, an organization of landowners, outfitters and sportsmen.

“I got an earful, and brought those concerns back to the commission,” Moody said. “People said that on opening day a large mob of people were turned loose ... and came in from every direction while there were still a lot of elk on the game range."

While collectors aren't grabbing antlers off the animals, they are getting in close proximity to herds, causing the elk undue stress and fatigue.

“People ended up surrounding those elk and they were running back and forth in a panic to get away from the horn hunters. They showed me a picture of an exhausted cow elk,” continued Moody.

Montana has more than 50 wildlife management areas, with a portion of them closed to the public in the winter. While most don't receive the crowds on opening day that Sun River does, the restrictions are being recommended statewide in an effort to be uniform.

“This has become one of the institutionalized traditions of the whole outdoor experience, without anybody really paying attention to it,” Moody said. “It’s just grown and grown over many years, and the Sun River game range was the trigger point of us doing something about it.”

Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife management bureau chief Quentin Kujala said that his department may not be able to legally limit the number of antlers that a person can remove, since shed racks technically aren’t considered wildlife. 

“There is certainly a question there,” Kujala said. “But this isn’t an elimination or an action to adjust antler hunting for the sake of antler hunting. It’s to protect the elk and the public, and to be fair.”

The Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission will discuss these recommendations at its meeting in Helena next week. Following a public comment period, a final proposal will be presented at a subsequent meeting in March.

-- Kelly Burgess

Photo: Shed elk antler. Credit: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources