Top 25 Montana General Elk Rifle Hunt Districts

wary elk herd during 2018 hunt season

From video taken the last day of my 2018 elk hunt.

In previous posts I have ranked the archery and rifle hunt districts (aka hunt units) for the General Elk seasons for various western states.

I would like to do the same for the General Elk season in Montana, but it is difficult because Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (MFWP) does not report General elk harvests separately.

Montana Still has General Elk Season

But Montana is still one of the states that has OTC General Elk Licenses for residents and though non-residents have to apply for these Licenses, you have a very good chance of drawing one. So anyone planning a DIY public land elk hunt for 2019 needs to apply by March 15, 2019. It’s too late this year, so make sure to apply by Mid March next year.

MFWP reports Harvest Data from 165 Hunting Districts (and partial Hunting Districts (HDs)) for Elk and Mule Deer. The latest available Harvest Date is from the 2017 hunt season. 153 of these HDs allow hunting with the General Elk License, 146 HDs have General Rifle Seasons and 151 HDs have General Archery Seasons. There were a few HDs that I ignored because no elk were harvested there.

In Montana, you can hunt most HDs with a General Elk License, but pay close attention to the regulations in each HD.

Different HDs in Montana allow hunters to take seven different combinations of age/sex/antlered/antlerless elk with General Elk Licenses during rifle seasons (see Table 1) and has five different combinations for archery hunters.

DIY Public Land Elk Hunt

Since I am interested in DIY Hunting on Public Land, HDs that do not allow me to hunt on the National Forest or HDs that are limited to Private Lands are no use to me, so I remove those HDs from consideration.

Table 1 shows the number of HDs with each Age/Sex Combination elk hunters can legally take with General Elk Licenses.

The left column shows all HDs and the right column shows only those HDs that do not restrict hunting on the National Forests or are limited to private lands.

Table 1. Montana General Elk License and Legal Take for Rife and Archery Seasons

Montana General
Elk Licenses
Age/Sex Combinations Total Number HDs Un-restriced HDs
General Elk Rifle (ALW)
Brow-tined Bull Elk      54       51
Brow-tined Bull or Antlerless Elk      41       34
Antlerless Elk      34       13
Either-sex Elk      35       29
Spike Bull or Antlerless Elk      11         8
Antlered Bull Elk       3         1
Spike Bull Elk       2         2
Total HDs    179     130
General Elk Archery
Brow-tined Bull or Antlerless Elk     85      82
Either-sex Elk     43      39
Antlerless Elk     15      14
Spike Bull or Antlerless Elk     13      10
Brow-tined Bull Elk      6       4
 Total HDs   162    140

If you noticed the totals do not add up in Table 1, it’s because many HDs have more than one season and in many cases, the Age/Sex you are allowed to harvest changes. Also note that some of the extra combinations are for Youth Only hunts.

But you can see if you are interested in hunting Mature Bull elk in Montana, there are 51 HDs that allow you to hunt Brow-tined Bulls on Public Land.

In addition, there are 34 HDs that allow either Brow-tined Bull elk or antlerless elk. There are also 29 HDs allow Either Sex elk and 1 HD that allows Antlered Elk; meaning spike elk can also be harvested. In total, that is 110 HDs that allows you to harvest a mature bull elk with a General Season License.

Want to Hunt Either-sex Elk?

For those that want the option to harvest any elk, only the 29 unrestricted HDs with Either Sex hunts allow you to do that (except for spikes, but spikes make up a small portion of the population). The Brow-tined Bull and Antlerless elk hunts (34 HDs) makes a total of 63 unrestricted HDs where you can take any elk on 29 units and all but spikes on the rest.

The same is true for those interested in hunting archery seasons. The total HDs that allow either sex and Mature Bull hunting is different, but there are more opportunities to hunt any elk except spikes with archery equipment.

Ranking Top Montana General Elk Hunt Districts

The methods I used to rank Montana’s Hunt Districts (HDs) are as follows.

First, General Elk Licenses are not available in a few HDs, so those HDs were eliminated.

Second, HDs (or seasons) that do not allow hunting on US Forest Service lands, or those limited to Private Lands or those with only Permits To Hunt From A Vehicle (PTHFV) restrictions were also eliminated.

I was also looking specifically at rifle seasons, but each of the tables (Tables 2, 3 & 4) show the percent of elk harvested by rifle (or Any Legal Weapon) vs archery.

Key Harvest Data Missing from Montana Harvest Reports

Since harvest data in Montana does not separate harvests from draw permits or General Licenses, the problem is how to remove the elk harvested with drawn permits. The truth is, it can’t be done accurately without more information.

MFWP doesn’t even report Archery and Rifle Hunts separately and lately, they have stopped reporting the number of hunters and hunter effort, so we no longer have any idea about hunter density or elk hunter success in Montana.

But if the General Elk License in a HD only allows Brow-tined Bulls to be harvested, I removed all Antlerless elk and spikes that were harvested. If the General License in a HD only allows Antlerless Elk to be harvested, I removed all bull elk from the harvest.

We do not know which seasons, tags or weapons were actually used to harvest the elk in those Hunt Districts, but we can see the total number of elk that could have been harvested in each unit with a General License for comparison. So the elk harvested give an idea about the quality of the district, but we just don’t know exactly which season all the elk were taken.

After removing elk that would not be legal with General Tags for each unit, I recalculated Total Elk and then ranked the Montana HDs with General Licenses by the remaining Total Elk Harvested (see Table 2).

Spike elk are included in the Total Elk Column, but not in the Bull Elk Columns, except for HD 590 where the only legal bull harvested would have been Spike Elk.

Notice the following tables have the following columns on the left side of the Tables, showing harvest data that would be legal only with General Elk License:

  • “Total Elk”
  • “Bull Elk”
  • “General Rifle Tag”

On the right side of the tables, the columns show the totals for all Licenses, seasons and weapons

  • “Total Elk”
  • “Bull Elk”
  • “% 6 pt Elk”
  • “% Rifle”

The “% 6 pt Elk” column shows the percentage of 6 point or better elk out of all Bull Elk harvested by all methods, licenses and seasons for each HD.

The “% Rifle” column shows the percentage of Total Elk taken by “Rifle” vs Archery from Total Elk Harvested by all methods, Licenses and seasons for each HD.

You can use the “% 6 pt Elk” data to look for units with a high proportion of mature bulls. Archery hunters can use the “% Rifle” data to estimate archery harvest by HD if you are willing to assume the proportion of elk harvested by all methods, licenses and seasons approximates the same proportion taken with General Elk Licenses.

Table 2 Top 25 Montana Hunt Districts – Total General Elk Harvest – Rifle

table with top montana general elk hunts

*B.T. Bull Elk = Brow-tined Bull Elk

The HDs in Table 2 ranged from 841 to 251 total elk in the Top 25 HDs. The top nine HDs in Table 2 show basically the same Total Elk and Bull Elk on both sides of the table because the only difference were a hand full of spike elk. Again, I am not saying all of these elk were harvested with General Licenses, but I am saying a General License would put you in the area where it is legal to harvest these elk. I hi-lighted data in cells that are different.

The number 10 spot (HD 590) does show large differences between the General License side and the Total side because the only legal bulls taken on the General License would be the 38 spikes. You can see this unit allowed mature bulls to be taken with the drawn elk permits (252 B.T. Bulls in fact), that were removed from the left side of the table. Removing that many bull elk also effects the Total Elk estimate.

Another example where General Licenses do not have the same opportunity as the drawn licenses is HD 411, where the General License only allows antlerless take and the drawn permits allow both.

The first thing you should notice from Table 2 is how the top 25 HDs are dominated by Regions 3 and 4. No surprise here, these Regions have the best year-round elk habitat and plenty of public lands.

Two Region 5 HDs show up in the top 25; HDs 540 and 590. HD 590 made it on the basis of antlerless harvest, because only 38 of the total harvest were Spike Bulls allowed on the General Elk Tags.

Prefer to Hunt Mature Bull Elk?

Personally, I like the option to hunt any elk (or either sex elk), but many folks are more interested in hunting mature bulls. So I also separated and ranked HDs both ways.

This next table (Table 3) is from all HDs where the General Elk License allowed hunters to take Mature Bull Elk (more specifically Brow-tined Bull Elk, Brow-tined Bull Elk or Either Sex HDs and Table 4 shows ranked HDs where hunters had the option to take any elk (specifically Brow-tined Bull Elk or Antlerless or Either Sex HD – realizing that the “Brow-tined Bull or Antlerless elk” option leaves out spikes and possibly a few other young bulls.

Table 3 shows the top 25 HDs (ranked by Bull Elk; (Brow-tined Bull Elk) in General License Elk HDs that allow the take of Mature Bull Elk (Brow-tined Bull Elk, Brow-tined Bull or Antlerless Elk or Either Sex Elk). Young bulls (spikes) are included in the Total Elk Column, but not in the Bull Elk Columns.

Table 3 Top 25 Montana Hunt Districts – General Mature Bull Elk Harvest – Rifle

table with top montana bull elk hunts
*B.T. Bull Elk = Brow-tined Bull Elk

Ranked by Mature Bull Elk only, the HDs in Table 3 range from 420 to 140 Bull Elk that were harvested in HDs with General Tags.

Again, these HDs are dominated by Region 3 and Region 4 except for the TOP Bull Elk unit with General Tags; HD 215.

For someone interested only in hunting mature bulls, you should also look at HDs 312 & 445 because over 70% of the bell elk taken in these HDs were 6 points or better and HDs 393, 314, 390 and 311 had over 60% of the bull elk with at least 6 points.

So for many of you folks that live in the upper mid-west, you can hunt elk most years without having to drive all the way to Colorado, but if you hunt in Montana, especially in Region 3 and Region 4 (where most are), you will have to pay attention to grizzly bears.

A Word of Advice for Your First DIY Elk Hunt

First of all, it is impossible to know everything before you go on your first elk hunt. At some point, you just have to make a decision and apply for or buy a tag.

You will never learn everything you need to know, but you will learn most of what you need to know after you start hunting. DIY elk hunting is a journey, not an event and not a destination.

It’s never going to be a perfect situation and I think that keeps many folks from every going on their first DIY elk hunt, but you have to start somewhere. Learn “on the job”, don’t keep waiting for the perfect situation and don’t keep waiting until you learn it all.

The “perfect” part is spending time in amazing habitat (alone or with family or friends) with the opportunity to harvest an elk.

If you have friends or family that have invited you to come hunt with them, you should go. The decision of where to hunt has been made or is left up to them as your local guide.

But if you are planning a DIY hunt, you could throw a dart at the map and can probably find elk on most of the National Forest Lands (depending on time of year), but before I choose a hunting unit (especially as a non-resident), there are many things I want to know about the HDs (not necessarily in this order):

  1. Where Can I Hunt? – One unit, many units, all units?
  2. What Can I Hunt? Mature Bulls Elk? Cow Elk? Both (or in Montana also Bull/Buck Combo)?
  3. When Can I Hunt?
  4. How much public land on the unit?
  5. How many elk were harvested on the unit?
  6. What is elk population and/or management objective?
  7. How many other hunters and how much hunting effort?
  8. Elk habitats, water sources and terrain
  9. Access points, trailheads, campsites, Roadless and Wilderness Areas

I hope by sorting and ranking the Montana General Elk units, it will help make your decision of where to hunt a little easier.

Comments, Opinions, Questions?