Hunters familiar with elk hunting in Montana know the most successful place to go for elk is on the western side of the state in the mountains.
By Lori Kesinger
About 50 percent of the annual elk harvest comes from southwestern Montana alone. Elk have thrived in the rugged terrain in places like the Gallatin and Beaverhead-Deerlodge national forests. Elk are also more numerous along the Rocky Mountain Front and other well known ranges across the western region.
A few hundred years ago elk were just as common across the plains of eastern Montana. Early explorers noted that elk lived across the vast prairie landscape occupying land grazed also by bison and antelope.
When the first big cattle ranchers brought their livestock into Montana after the Civil War, elk were still abundant on the open plains. At the end of the 1800s, fences and railroads started to close the open range and the elk were pushed out of their habitat. Following the homestead era into the early 1900s, the elk were eradicated from the prairie. Elk retreated into the mountains out of reach of hunting and human development.
However, in the last few decades, elk have roamed from mountainous areas back to the plains where they have found ample forage, few predators and little human presence. This has given some hunters the opportunity to hunt small herds of elk in eastern Montana, if the elusive animal can be spotted.
Dave Crawford, an avid hunter from Baker, was aware of a small herd of elk on land he owns towards Miles City. The herd made timber lines, coulees and brushy draws next to shortgrass prairies their habitat.
Hot and dry weather at the beginning of the archery season had the small herd patterning to a waterhole on Crawford’s land. Water attracted the elk for the obvious activities of drinking and wallowing.
Crawford set up a ground blind near the waterhole before the start of the season. On opening weekend, a bull elk and a few cows arrived at the waterhole and busied themselves, giving Crawford ample time to draw, aim and release. Crawford’s shot at 21 yards rewarded him with a trophy 6×6 bull elk. Only about four percent of elk hunters can say they’ve shot a 6×6 or larger bull and it’s usually not in eastern Montana.
Such success in elk hunting often comes with persistence. The more time spent scouting before the season the better the odds of finding good spots to hunt and see elk – even if seems unrealistic to try in eastern Montana.