Every year thousands of elk hunters throw their names in the hat for a special permit with dreams of hunting one of Montana’s limited draw units.
Managed for mature bulls, each of Montana’s five toughest draws come with unique characteristics and histories. Whether it is a chance to hunt migratory herds near iconic backcountry, or areas where limited hunting lets bulls grow old, drawing a special permit brings a mix of anxiety and excitement for the season to start.
Number 1: Gallatin Special Management Area
In 2018, 781 hunters applied for one of five permits to hunt bull elk in the Gallatin Special Management Area abutting Yellowstone National Park to the east and split by the Gallatin River and Taylor Fork — a success rate of only 0.64%.
In 1911 the Montana Legislature formed the Gallatin SMA out of concern from hunters of “unsportsmen-like” shooting of elk along Yellowstone’s border, according to a history by Al Lovaas. The 50-square-mile area within Hunting District 310 offered a buffer, with limited success, Lovaas noted, allowing elk to more freely leave the park.
In 2003, former biologist Craig Jourdonnais proposed a limited elk hunt in the management area, current area biologist Julie Cunningham said. Pointing to the minimal biological impact of hunting four or five bulls from a wintering herd of 200, he called the opportunity “an uncommon hunting opportunity for mature bull elk on public lands now closed to big game hunting.”
The proposal received mixed public feedback and it was not until 2005 — and following extensive work by a volunteer citizen-advisory council, Cunningham said — that FWP advanced a four-permit hunt in the management area. It continues today for five hunters fortunate enough to beat the odds.
“In my opinion, creating this opportunity was a great idea,” Cunningham said. “I have thoroughly enjoyed visiting with the lucky hunters who receive this tag every year. Their experiences, stories and adventures are truly phenomenal. I think it was one of the best ideas my predecessor had. He endured a lot of challenges to see it through.”
Helena hunter Joe Cohenour was one of those lucky hunters in 2017. His previous experience in the area consisted of assisting on a bow hunt in subzero temperatures, so learning a new area with the pressure of holding a special permit came with its share of challenges.
“It’s tough hunting because I had never hunted the area, didn’t know where to go or how the elk live there,” he said.
Cohenour spent 26 days hunting, seeing a good number of big bulls but never quite getting a shot on either of the two true giants he saw that year. The logistics of getting an elk out of the field in certain parts of the unit proved challenging as well, given the area’s proximity to Yellowstone. And the Taylor Fork and Gallatin Canyon is an area with a high number of predators.
“I saw grizzly bears — one if not two every day — wolf tracks every day it snowed, and some tracks were huge,” he said. “It’s a neat hunt, and I saw a lot of really pretty country, hunted as much as I could, and I still put in for it every year.”
Cunningham noted that the unit has seen a dip in elk numbers from the time that 1,500 elk wintered in HD 310, and has remained under population objectives for years now. The reasons are multifaceted, with increases in conifer density, the protection and gradual increase of grizzly populations, and the introduction of wolves in the park that expanded into Montana.
Elk have always migrated somewhat between the Gallatin and Madison drainages, but starting in the 1990s landownership changes that limited hunting along with the many factors shaping elk behavior in the Gallatin have pushed more elk to the Madison. That shift is another major factor in the Gallatin’s drop in elk numbers, she said.
In 2010, FWP moved to eliminate antlerless elk hunting in HD 310. Along with wolf harvest, Cunningham said, limited elk hunting has helped stabilize and perhaps even allow for wintering elk populations to increase in the Gallatin elk herd.
“Although I see fewer bulls than were once reported in the GSMA, I enjoy so much every year when I fly down there and see those big bulls in the timber,” she said. “Every year I am awed by the sight of them.”
With a 0.81% chance of successfully drawing a permit, the 615 hunters applying for five permits last year in HD 425 know it is a long shot at getting the chance to hunt the Sun River Wildlife Management Area west of Augusta.
Elk Permit 425-20 is valid for the entirety of the hunting district, but those applying know it offers the unique opportunity to hunt the WMA, said Brent Lonner, area biologist for FWP.
The WMA and neighboring ranches are a major refuge for elk migrating from the Bob Marshall Wilderness to winter. That makes the chances of finding a mature bull somewhat weather dependent, although elk will naturally start to leave the mountains for the foothills and prairie in late November even before snow and cold has yet to arrive, Lonner said.
An iteration of the permit existed in the early 2000s but no hunting was allowed on the WMA. That essentially meant hunters were restricted to one large ranch that charged for access, so wildlife managers decided to suspend the permit.
About five years later the permit returned to include the WMA, allowing hunters the choice of hunting public or private lands, Lonner said. While hunters have the opportunity for mature bulls, they are not around every corner.
“I think right or wrong with this tag and others, all it takes is one or two whopper bulls to be harvested and then hysteria kicks in a little bit,” Lonner said. “There are certainly high quality bulls, and I always tell people to put time in and get after it. For those willing to hike around and glass you have a decent chance.”
Number 3: Blackfoot-Clearwater Youth Hunt
At about 67,000 acres, the Blackfoot-Clearwater Wildlife Management Area near Ovando is on the small side when it comes to hunting districts.
FWP manages the WMA for public hunting opportunities as well as big game winter range. Archery hunters may hunt the area for bulls with a general license, but the lone bull permit belongs to a lucky youth hunter. And with 96 young hunters applying for one tag, the permit is the third hardest draw in the state, with a 1.04% success rate.
“It’s one of the more historically represented elk herds in the state, so I think there’s been a lot of interest locally and regionally,” said Scott Eggeman, regional biologist with FWP. “I think over time it’s been a great opportunity and a special hunt.”
Eggeman said the hunt is far from a “slam dunk,” but certainly offers a higher percentage of success for youth than hunting on a general license. As evidenced by his meeting last year at the check station with the young hunter who drew the tag and her father, they were both thrilled with the 6×6 bull she harvested and the opportunity the tag offered, he said.
Number 4: The Elkhorns
When it comes purely to the number of hunters applying for an elk permit the Elkhorn Mountains are far and away tops in the state of Montana.
The 10,045 hunters who entered the drawing for 135 permits in 2018 faced a paltry 1.34% chance to hunt the island range south of Helena. For those who do draw the permit, harvesting a mature bull is a good possibility, with the majority of tooth samples received by FWP in the 7- to 8-year-old range, biologist Adam Grove said.
“For big bulls it’s been very good for quite a few years now,” he said. “Some years we have rag horns all the way up to 15-year-old bulls, but most of them are in that 6- to 11-year-old range.”
For those who draw the permit, Grove said an average of 60% successfully harvest an animal.
The Elkhorns were not always the mecca for trophy potential they are today. In 1987, citing low numbers of branch-antlered bulls, FWP instituted a spike-only season with a general license. Restricted hunting and the allure of big bulls has made Hunting District 380 one of the most sought-after permits in the West.
Number 5: The Pines
Bordering the northern shore of Fort Peck Reservoir, Hunting District 632 — or “The Pines” as many call it — is home to a low-density elk herd but plenty of big bulls due to limited hunting.
Historically, few tags have been offered in the area, said biologist Drew Henry. Elk transplants in 1951 seeded the herd and the state offered its first hunting season in 1957.
In 2018, 438 hunters applied for 10 permits — a success of 2.28% — and the draw odds have never surpassed 3.5%, Henry said. The terrain and pine forest offer some security for elk and other big game, but access is not a major hurdle for hunters.
“It’s a mostly public land hunt and we have a thriving Block Management Program,” he said. “The elk are fairly accessible and succumb to pressure fairly easily, so we’re cognizant of over-exploiting it so the 10 rifle (bull) permits is the standard. The limited permits mean older age class bulls, and people get really excited about that.”