Elk Hunting in Montana: What you need to know

bugling bull elk

Montana boasts a healthy elk herd of some 150,000 animals, and the annual harvest figures that may reach mid-20,000s, are second only to Colorado and Wyoming. The state’s striking landscapes are a magnet for every outdoorsperson, and the variety of wildlife presents numerous options for combination hunts (but poses a few problems as well, as will be shown below). Last but not the least, most of record-breaking bull elk seem to come from Montana. Small wonder there are so many people who want to hunt elk in Montana. And, as usual with high demand, you can expect things to be highly competitive – or expensive.

Can you buy OTC elk tags in Montana?

Yes, if you’re a resident. Non-residents in most cases must get their licenses by limited draw. The deadline for application is March 15 (extended to April 1 for the season of 2020). There are also so-called “B” tags for antlerless elk, for a limited number of units. Some of these licenses may be available over-the-counter, making Montana perhaps the best destination for a “meat” elk hunt. The “A” type permits that are a combination of antlered and antlerless may be available over-the-counter, too.

Resident or non-resident, you can harvest the maximum of two elk a year: one on the general license, and one more on the “B” type license. “B” type licenses are antlerless only, and are available only on specific game management units where Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park Service believes the number of the animal exceeds the objectives. Rules for hunting on “B” type licenses vary greatly from unit to unit; for some units they are available over the counter, for others only through limited draw.

an elk herd in MontanaEven with limited draw, if you’re dead set on hunting elk in Montana you will hunt elk in Montana. There is a bonus points program for hunters who haven’t been successful with the draw, which will greatly improve your chances next year. Bonus points are squared before the draw, so if you haven’t drawn an elk tags for three years in a row, you get 9 points, not 3. There are also preference points, which give you an advantage over other hunters. But you have to make up your mind in advance whether you want them for next year. You can also purchase an unlimited number of additional chances to draw the license at $5 each. Without getting too much in statistics, if you haven’t drawn a Montana tag after 4 years of trying, you might want to contact the Guinness Book about admission as the most unlucky hunter in the world.

What are the best units for elk hunting in Montana?

This is perhaps the most common search query regarding elk hunting in the “Big Sky Country”. The answer, however, is less relevant than most people think. In fact, choosing which unit to hunt solely on harvest statistics may lead to bitter disappointments. Even for the hunters who are considering a DIY or a drop-in hunt, here are other questions that may be even more important for selecting where to go (but if you need to know this data, here’s a very useful link).

Anyone who wants to hunt elk in Montana must understand the difference between an elk license and an elk permit. An elk license entitles you to harvest one elk, in any part of the state, during any legal season, and by any legal (according to the season) means. An elk permit gives you access to elk hunting in a certain (otherwise restricted) area or season. You can’t apply for the permit if you don’t have the license, so in effect it works as a two-tier process. First, you draw the license, then you make up your mind where in the state you want to hunt.

an elk hunter headed into the woods of MontanaMost of the elk herd in Montana is concentrated in the West and the South-West of the state, the t territory occupied by Kootenai, Flathead and Beaverhead-Deerlodge National forests. Another strip of elk habitat runs from about the Yellowstone National Park to the north through the middle of the state. By far, the most popular unit with hunters was the 410-20, where in 2018 as many as 5099 hunters competed for only 150 permits, with success rate a meagre 2.92%. That’s still better odds than .81% for Unit 425-20 (615 applications for 5 permits), or 1% for Unit 282-20 (96 applicants trying to get the single permit). But there were units that could boast of 100% success rates.

How expensive is elk hunting in Montana?

Let’s start with the fact that unless you’re a Montana native, even a DIY hunt under the Big Skies will hurt your wallet. The Combination General Non-Resident Elk License costs $884, and if you (like most hunters) want a mule or whitetail deer tag, too, the Combination General Deer/Elk Non-Resident License is priced at $1046. Former residents of Montana can apply for a special license at about half the price. Montana residents get their elk tags over-the-counter for as little as $20 ($10 for minor, disabled, and senior citizens). Non-resident licenses are available only through limited draw. This is before travel cost, or the cost of the outfitter or drop-in camp service.

A lot of outfitters in Montana rely on access to private land rather than landowner’s tags to secure their clients. There are no landowner tags for elk like in other states (Montana offers landowners tags only for deer and antelope). But units that are mostly covered by private land are usually less attractive to hunters, especially non-resident hunters and consequently the success rate of those who do apply for them may reach 100%. Outfitters who do have access to private lands in such units will usually not have any problems finding clients.

a mountain ranch house in MontanaElk hunting in Montana for a non-resident hunter is an expensive proposition no matter how you look at that. If you’re not a highly experienced DIY hunter, with good wilderness skills, the experience of your guide may be a good investment and a way to avoid a lot of disappointment. Last but not the least, you would want the effort, skills and experience of a good guide when it comes to field processing and taking out your harvest, especially if you consider human-predator conflict.

Beware of the bear!

In addition to elk, Montana boasts of a healthy population of various predators, including grey wolves, black bears, mountain lions and grizzlies. All these predators may want to mess with you, especially with the carcass of the elk that you’ve killed, but by far the most dangerous encounters are with the brown bear. Every year hunters and guides are being harassed, attacked, mauled and even killed by these awesome predators, so the risk is real.

Grizzlies are extending their range, and are now seen in places where they haven’t been living in many decades, so you’d better be prepared. Safety in bear country is too serious a topic to be covered in a few sentences. Before going to Montana, you must educate yourself on the topic of bear charges, their causes, ways of avoidance, and tips on prevention. On arrival, discuss the issue with your guide – and do what he says. Trust your guide, follow his instructions and orders, but be aware of what may be coming and be ready to do your part.

What is the best time to hunt elk in Montana?

Elk season in Montana is generous, with the archery section covering most of September and October, and the general season lasting until December. The first weeks of the general season, when you can still catch up with late bugling action, may be best. There are also special “shoulder seasons” that open earlier and close later than the regular season, but they are set only for certain units, are antlerless only, and typically take place on private land. Regulations may vary from area to area, so check with Montana Fish, Game and Parks.

But in terms of the hunting experience, there’s no such thing as a bad time to go elk hunting in Montana!


  1. Just drew a Montana general deer & elk license for this fall.
    Looking for the best outfitter to put me on some trophies.

  2. I drew a general elk and deer combo license. It’s very difficult to tell from the Montana FPW what I can actually hunt. Bull or cow or either?

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