On Sept 2, during opening weekend of archery season, Hellgate Hunters and Anglers president Kit Fischer was camped out with hunting buddies near a block management area, eager to get a jump on some elk. As they milled about camp, Fischer recalls, a member of the Blackfoot Challenge wandered up bearing bad news: A closure had just been announced for the Ovando Mountain BMA effective the next morning. The Rice Ridge fire was too close.
Archery hunters throughout western Montana have been facing similar situations. Access to 20 block management areas in Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' Region 2 has been closed or heavily restricted since mid-August due to fire danger or wildfire proximity. All Weyerhaeuser timber company lands were closed to the public starting Sept. 5. The Nature Conservancy closed its lands effective Aug. 29.
"I think a lot of hunters that use block management are just holding tight until conditions improve," says FWP conservation specialist Tyler Rennfield.
As frustrating as the closures may be for would-be early birds, Region 2 wildlife manager Mike Thompson says the agency has never relied heavily on early hunts to meet harvest numbers. That said, the rest of this season needs to go well. Last year's mild fall and snowy winter had FWP "treading water" when it came to reducing elk numbers in unsustainable populations, Thompson says. Harvest totals just about broke even with herd growth. In one hunting district north of Butte, spring surveys indicated a population increase.
"We have to do at least as good as last year, and ultimately better, if we're going to make some progress," Thompson says.
Wildfires could complicate hunting season in another way. A lot of Montana fires are burning on summer elk range, Thompson says, and he anticipates the ungulates will congregate on private agricultural land more than usual by the time general rifle season begins Oct. 21. If that's the case, hitting harvest quotas will hinge on the willingness of landowners to grant hunters access—and possibly on FWP opening shoulder seasons.
Still, Thompson sees a potential silver lining in the fires' long-term effects on elk and hunters. If western Montana gets a good amount of moisture this fall and winter, Thompson says, freshly burned areas will become prime forage next year, scattering elk more widely across the landscape and easing elk congregation on low-lying ag lands.
All this raises an obvious question: Where do all the elk go when the forests are burning? Thompson laughs, then does his best to answer based on past info from radio-collared elk in burn areas.
"You have this vision of animals just moving and migrating out in advance of the fire," Thompson says. "But my experience has been that it's more a matter of stepping aside and using the places that haven't burned within the burn perimeter."