Sure, whitetails hide like rabbits when hunting pressure gets heavy, but they say when you bump elk they’ll walk right over the mountaintop. The thing is new studies show that to be true, but not necessarily. Researchers have been putting GPS collars on elk to find out exactly where they go when the hunting pressure hits. The studies have found that, sure, a lot of elk move to less-pressured private lands and hard-to-access areas, but they’ve also found some elk hiding in overlooked drainages and sections of public land that are tricky to access.
Similarly, Brad Petch, a senior biologist with Colorado Parks & Wildlife, says, “Our studies have found that a lot of elk move from public to private holdings to avoid hunters, but they don’t always leave the public lands. The savvier hunters learn to look for overlooked public parcels that abut or are hemmed in by less-pressured private lands. Some of the areas might be blocked off by private lands on two or three sides. You might have to climb around the private lands to access some places.”
Many elk hunters are certain more pain means more gain. Often they’re right, but not always. Land just off trailheads and roads might be hiding a bull. The small draws and drainages that don’t have pack trails crossing through them are worth checking. With public-land hunting, you have to scout the people as much as the elk.
Justin Gude, a wildlife research and technical services bureau chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, says, “We’ve found that the bow season doesn’t typically change the movement patterns of elk very much, but the gun season sure does. Once the gun season opens, our studies have found that elk clearly shift to harder-to-access areas and private lands. Many of the areas in southwestern Montana are patchworks of public and private lands. Experienced hunters look for good habitat that hunters miss in the collage of terrain.” OnXmap’s Hunt app, he says, includes map data for private-land-access-program areas, such as from Montana’s Block Management Program.
“The Block Management maps can also be viewed online,” says Gude. (See Block Management maps here) “As hunters scout an area they need to know all the access and pressure points.” There’s a lot to learn. In the 2013 season, about 1,240 landowners enrolled about 7.8 million acres of land in the Block Management Program.
Gude and Petch describe elk habitat not as the vast forests and parks stretching over mountains that it looks like at first glance; it’s a massive checkerboard of private and public lands and various habitats. A hunter who understands this sees the map within the map, they say.
Rules of the Road
So when you look over your maps, take access roads into account first. Hunter access via roads had such a profound effect on elk distribution that the study even determined “standards based solely on road densities may be adequate for managing female elk distributions on public lands during the hunting periods in some areas.” That’s a bold statement.
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