The Danger Zone – Hunting Elk in the Last Week of the Season

by Oct 14, 2019Hunt/Fish

It’s now the middle of the fall hunting season across much of Canada. For hunters who have not harvested a big game animal, the deadline known as “closing day” is literally closing in on them. If you are a hunter still eager to fill your tag in the last week of the season, you will now be hunting in the danger zone.

In the region where I live and hunt in Southeastern British Columbia, Rocky Mountain elk are the big game animals that many hunters are focused on from September to late October. Like many game management units in Canada, Southeast BC has special restrictions that define what constitutes a legal game animal that a hunter can harvest.

In Southeast BC, hunters hunting in the general open rifle season can only harvest a bull elk with 6 or more tines (aka points) on at least one of the elk’s antlers. Antler-based restrictions are a common management tool used in Canada to help meet wildlife management objectives by controlling which age classes animals are harvested from or how many total animals are harvested each hunting season.

Antler-based hunting restrictions are not without controversy though. Some hunters feel antler restrictions are the be-all-end-all of game management. Other hunters say antler restrictions make hunting too complicated and these reduce their opportunity to fill their freezers with wild meat. Still others say they would rather have strict antler regulations and still have the opportunity to go hunting in a general open season rather than having the Limited Entry Hunting draw system imposed on them.

Possibly the single biggest controversial aspect of using the antler-based restrictions revolves around the ability (or inability) of hunters to judge, with 100% certainty, whether a tine is of legal size. Like any hunting rule, antler restrictions must have a legally enforceable definition. In British Columbia, a legal tine is defined in the BC hunting regulations as such: tine or point means a branch of an antler which is longer than its breadth and is at least 2.5 cm in length.

Here’s the rub though. How is a hunter supposed to be sure a tine is 2.5 cm long? Because 2.4 cm is not a legal tine. There is an unfortunate trend emerging in my neck of the woods where more and more bull elk that are not legal 6-points are being shot in the last week of the season. Sometimes as many as one illegal bull per day is reported during the last week of the season.

The honest hunters self-report their mistakes to the BC Conservation Officer Service, and they work together to make sure the meat is recovered, processed and redistributed to the local community. However, some of these accidental kills are left and not reported by the hunter who shot the bull (who is now a poacher), and the meat ends up going to waste because it spoils by the time anyone finds the dead elk.

So, why is there an increase in illegal bulls being shot in the last week of the season? The illegal bulls aren’t all being shot by “out-of-region hunters” so that old excuse doesn’t hold water.

I don’t know if anyone has the answer or the data to say with certainty why there are so many illegal bulls shot at the end of the season, so I can only speculate. I wonder whether social media might have something to do with it. The ever-expanding use of social media by hunters might be overwhelming to some.

I worry about whether hunters are feeling a sense of inadequacy because social media makes them feel like they are the only hunters on the Internet who haven’t got a bull yet this year. This pressure may be so real for some hunters that their ethics go out the window to the point where any bull they see looks like a 6-point or even the tiniest bump on the antler looks like a 2.5 cm tine.

Most hunters are responsible, conscientious and law-abiding and they always do the right thing. I’m amazed at how good most hunters and guides are at determining the legality of a buck, bull or ram and how cool and collected they are while they assess the situation. I’m also thankful there are so many hunters that walk away when they have even the tiniest bit of doubt. For these hunters they only shoot or tell their clients to shoot when there is zero doubt over whether the animal is legal or not.

Most of the bull elk harvested each year in Southeast BC, like all big game animals in the rest of Canada, are legal animals that fit into the age-bracket that wildlife managers want the harvest to be concentrated in. The challenge in my home region lies with the uncertainty about if or when the harvest numbers of illegal bulls compromises the sustainability of the entire elk hunt.

In Southeast BC, elk herds have declined about 50% over the last decade but the bull to cow ratios are still healthy. Our problem is that we just have fewer elk. Because it limits the overall take of breeding-aged bulls, the 6-point antler restriction allows wildlife managers to maintain a general open bull season. For now, the take of illegal bulls has not upset the apple cart.

So, if you are hunting in the last week of the season, be aware that you are hunting in the danger zone. You may find yourself inadvertently under pressure and in an uncertain situation. When you finally find a bull, take an extra breath and slow down. Be 100% sure that it’s a legal 6-point and walk away if there is even the slightest doubt. If you are hunting with a friend and see your partner exhibit warning signs of abandoning good judgment – speak up. Responsible hunting requires a leader to step up in times of stress.

A legal tine or not?

Sure, if the 6th tine on the bull you got is 2.5 cm long, it’s a legal bull. Honestly though, can you precisely judge 2.5 cm ± 0.1 cm at 100, 200, 300 yards or in the timber while a bull is moving around? These hunters are gambling, and only a few of them happen to get lucky that their bull was not illegal. Knowingly taking a chance is not something that responsible hunters do. Hunters that don’t self report an accidental shooting are also gambling with having their hunting privileges revoked should they be caught.

One of the best self-control mechanisms you can adopt is to hold a personal ethic where your definition of a legal tine is longer than the minimum specified in the hunting regs. Feeling certain that a bull has a 5 or 10 cm tine is easier than trying to differentiate a 2.4 cm tine from 2.5 cm tine on a live bull elk. Be committed to walking up to your downed bull with complete confidence.

Until elk populations in Southeast BC start trending up again, hunters must be thankful that the herd composition and bull to cow ratios still allow for a general open season even though the 6-point antler restriction means fewer hunters will get a bull.

Most hunters possess similar values, goals and perspectives. No matter what game species are being hunted or what part of the country we are talking about, hunter conservationists care about the sustainability of game populations. We want the chance to fill our freezers, but we all trust that our fellow hunters, regardless of the game animal being hunted, will act with a heightened level of self-control when they are hunting in the danger zone.

Copyright © Jillian / Adobe Stock

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