Non-Residents Can Hunt Elk in Montana in 2018

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 did not sell out until 2017.

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.

We should have predicted that more non-resident hunters would apply for elk and elk/deer combination tags in 2017, so 17,000 non-resident hunters got tags, but only about 500 did not. Those are still very good odds to get an elk tag in Montana for 2018.

Why Not Hunt Elk In Montana?

Montana has averaged over 24,000 elk harvested over the last five years (2012 – 2016; 2017 data not yet available) and has increased from about 20,000 elk in 2012 and 2013 to over 30,000 elk in 2015, before dropping back to 24,532 in 2016.

Table 1 Montana Elk Harvest 2012 – 2016

Year Bull Elk Cow Elk Total Harvest Hunters Success Days per Harvest
2012 10,452 9,098 20,550 102,861 20.0% 43.2
2013 10,446 9,708 20,154 107,568 18.7% 45.7
2014 13,142 12,594 25,735 107,663 23.9% 36.7
2015 13,703 15,732 30,924 113,959 27.1% 33.9
2016 11,089 13,443 24,532 113,577 21.6% 43.5
AVG 11,936 11,755 24,379 109,126 22.3% 39.9

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)

In order to really 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.

Look for my next post where I will rank the best general elk hunt units by the number of elk harvested and by hunter success.

Comments

  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?

  3. Dan Lawrence says:

    I am a Michigan native and have done guided and DIY out in western Montana, and giving it another go this Sept. While doing some research and trying to find the unit/units that will best stack mine and my buddies odds (if we decide to change units or states this is) I came across your article. I found it very informative and helpful and will be reading more of your articles in the next couple days. You had a reply from Nov 12, 2017 about your encounters, what state were you hunting?

  4. Just purchased the Big Game Combo for the 2018 season, from all the research (phone calls etc…) the general license allows you to hunt anywhere in Montana so long as the HD you want to hunt allows it, correct? Also the HD we want to hunt states that a brow-tined bull or anterless elk may be taken. By Montana definition the anterless elk can be a female or juvenile male. So why are the success rates so low? Since I just spent $1000 on a tag, I plan on coming back with something… Any thoughts on this??

    • Hi Kyle: Yes, I actually have quite a few thoughts on this.
      What do you think success should be for a General Elk hunt that allows any elk except spikes to be taken?

      I think the combined success rates reported in Montana are higher than some other states. I say combined because it’s hard to get true General Elk hunt stats from Montana. Some other states report general harvests separately or in such a way as the general harvest data can be teased out of the total data. Montana does not make that possible, since all harvest statistics are lumped together. Data from general tags, B Licenses and Elk Permits that have to be drawn are all lumped together.

      If it makes you feel any better, I also have a hard time getting specific questions answered from Montana FWP. You would think they realize they are competing for non-res dollars, but they obviously don’t care. Play by their rules or don’t play. I think getting specific information from the state wildlife agency websites and reg books is the single hardest thing about DIY elk hunting.

      So here you are with a $1000 tag and I understand the need to come home with something. Have you hunted elk before? Have you hunted any HD in Montana before?

      There are many reasons elk hunts on public land have low success, but 20% success seems to be about the norm for General Elk hunts.

      From the latest Montana harvest report, if you rank the top units (units with at least 20 elk harvested) by harvest success, they go from almost 38% success to just under 28%. As I said before, that is good.
      So if we look at the 20th ranked unit (HD 329), what does a 28% success mean? Obviously 28 out of 100 or one hunter out of every 3.7 harvests an elk. That is actually very good.
      Also look at hunting effort. 2,051 hunters spent 13,204 days in the field to harvest 548 elk or in other words it took 24.1 days to harvest each elk on average (43.5 days per elk 2016 state total).

      Obviously everyone’s hunt effort is not the same. The hunter that hiked 10 miles per day and the guy that played pocket pool at camp most of the day each count as a hunt day.

      In states with short seasons, that explains why the average elk hunter harvests an elk every 4 or 5 years. But Montana’s season is long. As a non-res, you probably can’t spend that much time and that also explains why success can be low.

      I’m just going to say up front, IMHO most elk hunters don’t put in much effort and should expect to find elk. Yes, they might drive around all day, but they are driving past elk they will never see. The main reason they say 20% of the hunters harvest 80% of the elk.

      I understand the desire to find elk first, then to get after them, but if that method worked consistently, more people would harvest elk.

      Most elk hunters never get more than a quarter mile from a road. That is 440 yards. So more elk hunters are willing to take a shot farther than they are willing to hike away from a road.

      Granted every step away from a road equals pain when you have an elk down, but hard work does not mean impossible. My wife and I do it and I may be fooling myself, but I still think I could pack an elk by myself a mile back to the truck if the terrain is not too steep.

      I say you have a better chance if you park the truck and walk away. Walk into the wind and across the wind and cover as much ground as you can. When you have chances, take breaks and scan everything in sight, but always be hunting. You will be surprised how lucky you can get even if you can’t walk far.

      But even if you don’t harvest an elk… Will you be coming home with nothing? Impossible. If nothing else, you will have gained useful knowledge for next year. Just having the experience should be worth the price of a tag.

      Good luck on your hunt and let me know where you end up and how it goes.

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