Non-Residents Can Hunt Elk in Montana with General Tags

Despite the fact that the elk harvest in Montana ranks third only behind Colorado and Wyoming, I have not thought much about hunting elk in Montana since non-residents had to apply for the General Elk tags back in 2011.

montana elk distribution public land map

Map 1. Montana elk distribution on public land shown in blue. (Click for larger map)

But I have learned getting a general non-resident tag may not be that difficult.

There are 17,000 elk or elk/deer combination licenses available for non-residents, and they have not sold out in the last five years.

That means since 2011, not enough hunters applied by the March 15 deadline so everyone that applied for a non-resident combination elk license got one. Even if you didn’t apply, you could still get a tag if you were among the first to buy them when they went on sale as surplus licenses in May. In 2016, 2,200 tags were sold as surplus licenses.

If 5,000 more non-resident hunters apply in 2017 than applied in 2016, everyone will still have better than an 85% chance of getting combination elk tags.

Why Not Hunt Elk In Montana?

Montana has averaged over 24,000 elk harvested each year between 2012 – 2015 and has increased from about 20,000 elk in 2012 and 2013 to over 30,000 elk in 2015.

Table 1 Montana Elk Harvest 2012 – 2015

Year Bull Elk Cow Elk Total Harvest Hunters Success
2012 10,452  9,098    20,550 102,861  20.0%
2013 10,446  9,708    20,154 107,568  18.7%
2014 13,142 12,594    25,735 107,663  23.9%
2015 13,703 15,732    30,924 113,959  27.1%
AVG 11,936 11,783    24,341 108,013  22.5%

Compare Montana Harvest to other Western States

Montana, like most other western states are great for DIY elk hunting because it has 35 million acres of public land plus an additional 8 million acres of private land made available through the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (WFWP) Block Management Program.

Map 1 Montana Elk Distribution on Public Land

I took the most recent (2016) elk distribution map published by MFWP and overlaid it with a map of public land to produce Map 1 above.

Areas where elk can be found on public land are colored blue.

I also included the regional boundaries and the hunting districts (HDs – aka units) to show their approximate locations.

Click on Map 1 to see a larger version.

Map 2 Montana Elk Population Objective by Hunt District

montana elk population objective map

Map 2. Montana Elk Population Objective. (Click for larger Map)

Population objectives are the numbers of elk that wildlife biologists want on any given HD or group of HDs.

Map 2 shows Montana’s 2015 population objectives and are color coded as follows (and according to the legend on the map).

  • Red HDs (or group of HDs) are managed to have between 2,001 and 8,000 elk.
  • Orange HDs should have between 1,001 and 2,000 elk.
  • Yellow HDs between 501 and 1,000 elk.
  • Green HDs between 201 and 500 elk.
  • Blue HDs between 0 and 200 elk.
  • There are no objectives for the white areas, Indian Reservations or National Parks.

Also notice that HDs (must see on the large map) with plus marks “+” were 20% above the objective in spring of 2016 and HDs with minus marks “-” were 20% below objective. HDs with no marks were within (+/-20%) to their objective populations.

Montana Elk Hunt Region 1

For specific examples, I will pick two HDs (or groups of HDs) from each region and also put the data into Table 2.

Notice on Map 2 that HDs 100 (Purcell) and 104 (Lower Clark Fork) in Region 1 are both colored green (objective is between 201 – 500 elk) and are both below objective.

The elk objectives for HD 100 is 300 elk and 225 elk for HD 104, but actual estimates of the elk population (after the 2015 hunt in 2016) was 173 and 160 elk respectively, so these units are below objective. In 2015, 75 elk were harvested from HD 100 and 73 elk from HD 104.

Table 2. Selected Montana Elk Hunt Districts

HD Population 2015 Hunter 2016 Obj.
(Unit) Objective Elk Harvest Success Pop. Est. Status
 100     300       75     4.8%    173 42.3% Below
 104     225       73     5.9%    160 28.9% Below
 213    750     199   22.0%    645 14.0% Below
 270  3,800     437   15.8%  5,023 32.2% Above
 314  3,000     407   30.5%  4,410 47.0% Above
322,323,324+  8,000   2,921   31.0% 10,841 35.5% Above
 410  2,300*     776   35.3%  4,359 89.5% Above
 413     500     172   15.6%     548 +9.6% At
 520  1,050     256   21.8%  1,695 61.4% Above
 575     225     160   19.4%  1,240 451% Above
 620,621,622  1,650*     570   29.3%  3,586 117% Above
 630,631,632     350*     117   23.8%     669 91.1% Above
 700, 701     300*     497  27.8%   1,964 555% Above
702, 704, 705     500     461  21.8%   2,562 114% Above
*Upper limit of objective – stated as range not exact number

Montana Elk Hunt Region 2

HD 213 (Flint Creek) is coded yellow (501 – 1000 elk) and HD 270 (Sapphire) is red (2,001 – 8,000 elk), but the actual objectives were 750 and 3,800 elk respectively. The population estimate for HD 213 was 645 elk and the estimate for HD 270 was 5,023 elk, so HD 213 is below objective and HD 270 is above objective. In 2015, 199 and 437 elk were harvested from HDs 213 and 270.

Montana Elk Hunt Region 3

HD 314 (Northern Yellowstone) and the group of HDS that includes 322, 323, 324, 325, 326, 327 & 330 (Gravelly) are coded red, so their objectives are in the range of between 2,001 and 8,000 elk. Actual objectives were 3,000 and 8,000 elk respectively. The population estimates were 4,410 and 10,841, so both areas are above their objectives. Elk harvest in 2015 was 407 and 2,921 elk.

Montana Elk Hunt Region 4

HD 410 (Missouri River Breaks) is also coded red with an objective stated as between 2,000 – 2,300 elk and HD 413 (Little Belt) is coded green (201 – 500 elk) with an objective of 500 elk. The population estimate for HD 410 was 4,359 elk and the estimate for HD 413 was 548 elk, so HD 410 is above estimate and HD 413 is considered to be “At” the population objective. This was after a 2015 harvest of 776 elk in HD 410 and 172 elk in HD 413.

Montana Elk Hunt Region 5

In Region 5, HD 520 (Absaroka) is orange (1001 – 2000 elk) and HD 575 (Mid-Yellowstone) is green (201 – 500 elk). The actual objectives are 1,050 and 225 respectively and population estimates are 1,695 and 1,240 elk, so both units are above objected. HD 520 had 256 elk taken in the 2015 hunt season and 160 elk were harvested in HD 575.

Montana Elk Hunt Region 6

In Region 6, the two blocks of HDs (620,621 & 622) and (630,631 & 632) (both Missouri River Breaks) are coded orange (1001 – 2000 elk) and green (201 – 500 elk). The actual objective for the 620, 621 & 622 block is 1,400 – 1,650 while the 630,631 & 632 block is 300 – 350. Population estimates were 3,586 and 669 elk respectively, so both blocks of districts are above objective. In 2015, 570 and 117 elk were harvested from these blocks of units.

Montana Elk Hunt Region 7

The two blocks of HDs (700 & 701 – Missouri River Breaks) and (702, 704 & 705 – Custer Forest) are coded green and both blocks are above objective. The objective of 700/701 is 200-300 elk and the objective for 702/704/705 is 500 elk. Actual population estimates for 700/701 in 2016 was 1,964 after a harvest of 497 elk.

The block of HDs (702/704/705) was surveyed last in 2013 when the population estimate was 1,503 elk. In 2015, 461 elk were harvested from those three HDs combined.

Also be aware that units with no elk objective may have elk. For example, 86 elk were harvested in HD 101 in 2015, 24 elk were harvested in HD 280, 326 elk were harvested in HD 321, 47 elk were harvested in HD 404, 6 elk were harvested each in HD 600, 640 and 670 and 14 elk were harvested in HD 703. Without taking the time to dig further, I’m guessing most of these were harvested by locals with local knowledge, but not the best options for non-residents looking for a DIY elk hunt.

Consider a DIY Elk Hunt in Montana

After looking at Maps 1 and 2, you should have a good idea of where the elk and the public land are in Montana. No wonder half of all elk harvested in Montana are from Region 3. As a DIY public land hunter, you need to know where the public land is, but you don’t necessarily have to hunt districts with the highest elk density (and usually the highest hunter density.

Map 3 Ecoregions of Montana.

montana ecoregions map

Map 3. Ecoregions of Montana. (Click for larger Map)

To further understand where the elk habitats are and to help decide what type of terrain to hunt, Montana is made up of seven ecoregions (Map 8). Four or the ecoregions are forested mountain types, two are Great Plains prairie types and a very small section of the Wyoming Basin is a sagebrush desert.

While the two largest plains sections make up over 65% of the state, most of the elk are in the western mountains.

Most of the public land is in the western mountains and most land in the plains regions are private ranches and farms.

The remainder of the state consists of the Middle, Northern, and Canadian Rockies and combined with a small section of the Idaho Batholith ecoregion, make up just over a third of the state.

Elk are primarily found in the mountains, including small isolated ranges that or found in the middle of the Great Plains regions. These ranges are also classified as Middle Rockies. Elk are also moving down the large rivers (especially the Missouri, Yellowstone and Bighorn Rivers) through the plains ecoregions and elk populations have increased in these areas.

Characteristics of Rocky Mountain Ecoregions in Montana

The Canadian Rockies are generally higher and more ice-covered than the Northern Rockies with extensive treeless alpine habitats at high elevation. Most of the Canadian Rockies ecoregion is included in Glacier National Park.

The Northern Rockies ecoregion is also made up of rugged, high elevation mountains, but is lower and less ice-covered than the Canadian Rockies. It differs from the Middle Rockies by the dominate tree vegetation.

Western white pine, western red cedar, and grand fir habitats are common in the Northern Rockies while lodgepole pine habitats are more common in the Middle Rockies.

Logging and mining are more common in the Northern Rockies and grazing is more common in the Middle Rockies.

I hope this information has bee helpful for any non-resident that has considered hunting big game in Montana.

The next post will discuss the different types of rifle, archery and youth only hunts as well as the various combinations of bull elk only, antlerless elk only and either sex hunts allowed on different hunting districts with the General Elk Licenses in Montana and also with B Licenses and Elk Permits.


  1. Bill Hodges says:

    Very informative article for a beginning DIY er like myself. Would love to figure out how, when, where, for moderately challenging any elk hunts.

    • Sorry for the slow response Bill, been trying to put an elk in my freezer.
      Yes, those are the questions to be asking. But if you are a DIYer (especially on public land), those are things you have to figure out or yourself.
      My DIY Elk Hunting guide will help you find the information you need to decide where to hunt, but you will have to learn the regs and make the final decision about where you want to hunt.

      My book will also give you some insight about how to prepare for the hunt and where and how to find elk, but if you live close to elk country, you will have to do your own scouting. If not close, you will have to start the process by looking at topo maps and Google Earth. Obviously, it is best to know and area well before hunting it, but if you get out there, you have a chance of running into elk.

      What does moderately challenging mean to you? What is the most important thing you want to get out of a DIY elk hunt? A trophy on the wall? Meat in the freezer? Or an awesome experience in awesome country with your favorite people?

      A successful DIY elk hunt will depend on preparation, effort and luck.

      This season, I hunted three different seasons for a total of 21 days and saw elk 9 times (7 times less than 250 yards, 4 times less than 100 yards). On most days, I hiked at least 5 miles and climbed and dropped at least 1,000 feet. But I am over 60 now and don’t have the best knees.

      Anyway, it looks like my article sparked something. Do your research, pick a spot, get a tag and go for it next season.
      Let me know how you do.

  2. How/where do you apply for a tag?

Comments, Opinions, Questions?


Notify me of new posts by email.