With a weight that exceeds 1,000 pounds and a distinctive and majestic rack of horns, the American bull elk has been at the top of the wish list of many a big game hunter. Montana is a prime destination for hunters in search of the big prize. However, Montana has more than 147,000 square miles of land and a diverse topography. It also has a confusing mix of private game lands, national forests and large tracts of untamed wilderness. Thus, the hunter looking for elk in the United States’ fourth largest state faces a stiff, but rewarding, challenge.
Learn the Land
Pinpoint the region you want to hunt. Montana has two distinct and very different natural regions: the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Elk range year-round in most of Montana, with populations spiking in the spring and early summer. Both bow and rifle seasons are in the early fall. The Great Plains region features vast farmlands and ranches. Many private ranches stock protected herds of elk and run hunts. The wilder regions of the Rocky Mountains are in the western part of the state. Mountain ranges offer a spectacular setting of valleys and ridges, with lots of timber land to provide cover for the plentiful elk.
Start in the Southwest
In the southwestern corner of the state is a wide tract of land labeled in many hunting maps as “Region 3.” Here, you’ll find large herds of elk in the mountainous forest ranges south of Bozeman and near Dillon. More than 50 percent of the Montana elk harvest comes from this region. More than 50,000 observations of elk were reported in that area in 2007. Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest offers prime hunting grounds managed by the National Fish, Wildlife & Parks department so, before embarking on a hunt, you’ll want to check regarding regulations and marked hunting grounds. Other hunting sites in this region include the western part of Yellowstone National Park, Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and Great Kohrs Ranch near Deer Lodge Gates of the Mountain Game Preserve.
Elk Hunting in the North
The north central part of the state offers some good hunting opportunities. East of Great Falls lies wilderness prime for hunting. The area also has some game preserves. McLean and Brinkman game preserves are north of Great Falls. West is Sun River Game Preserve and Ear Mountain Wildlife Management area. While this region is not as popular as the southern sites, the wilderness is varied and the herds appear plentiful enough. As with all regions of Montana, you’ll want to check local land maps and hunting regulations to make sure you are hunting legally and safely.
Eastern Montana Spots
With not as many elk nor as many hunters, eastern Montana still offers some excellent hunting opportunities. On the plains once controlled by the Crow and Cheyenne tribes and where Custer made his last stand, you will find some fertile hunting grounds. Your best bet here is perhaps a private hunting ground. There are also some herds running just north of Billings.
Prepare and plan
Choose your location and hunting camp carefully. There are many qualified outfitters and guides in Montana. Hunting trip durations can range from 6 to 8 days with costs up to $4,500. Look for extra charges such as dressing your kill, cost per hunter and other charges that can bust your budget. Most of all, go where the elk are most likely to range. Checking population and hunting maps will not guarantee a successful hunt but, as any good hunter knows, the proper preparation will go a long way to meeting your goals and making a great memory.