APPLICATION STRATEGY 2021: Montana Elk
MONTANA'S 2021 ELK APPLICATION OVERVIEW
Jump to: STATE INFO Draw System Elk Breakdown HUNT CHOICES
Note: The application deadline for Montana big game, elk and deer combination licenses along with deer and elk permits is April 1, 2021 by 11:45 p.m. MST. The application process is completely online here or in any Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (Montana FWP) office.
View important information and an overview of the Montana rules/regulations, the draw system and bonus points, SuperTags, tag and license fees and an interactive boundary line map on our State Profile. You can also view the Montana Elk Profile to access historical and statistical data to help you find trophy areas.
Applying for a state you've never hunted before can be daunting but we are here to make it easy. In the video above, Trail goes over some of the most commonly asked questions when applying in Montana.
Important dates and information
- Applications for elk must be submitted by 11:45 p.m. MST on April 1.
- Applications can be submitted online here after March 1, 2021.
- An 80% refund can be requested on nonresident licenses if requested by Aug. 1, 2021.
- A 50% refund can be requested on nonresident licenses if requested after Aug. 1, 2021.
- Draw results will be available approximately two weeks after the draw deadline.
- Surplus licenses are available for purchase in early August.
- Preference and bonus points are available for purchase for nonresidents who did not apply in the general drawing between July 1 and Sept. 30 for a fee. See more information here.
Montana license, point, and permit fees for 2021
|item||Resident fee||Nonresident fee|
|Base hunting license||$10||$15|
|Elk combination license||NA||$888|
|Big game combination license||NA||$1,052|
|Permit application fee||$9||$9|
|Bonus point (with draw application)||$2||$20|
|Bonus point (points only period)||$15||$25|
Overall, this past winter in Montana has been fairly normal in terms of snowfall. A few late snowstorms have hit at this point, but snowfall has not been terribly significant and these should not have any lasting effects on calf recruitment for this spring. Along with snowpack, we will also need to keep an eye on late spring/early summer rainfall as these will play heavily into antler growth, available feed and wildfires.
Predators in Montana
The predator populations in Montana are often the subject of spirited debates with strong feelings on both sides of the spectrums. Wolf packs continue to maintain healthy population levels and have firmly rooted themselves into most of the western portion of the state. Elk populations are down throughout the state compared to historic levels, but great hunting can still be found.
Grizzly populations continue to climb along with bear and hunter interactions. As of now, hunting seasons across the West are still on hold for grizzly bears. Much of western Montana is home to a roaming population of grizzlies and hunters need to be acutely aware and prepared when spending time in these locations.
Even with growing grizzly concerns, hunters can still find plenty of huntable areas where they won’t have to worry about grizzlies. When researching specific areas, a quick call to local biologists can be well warranted.
The Montana draw system
Before diving into the trending hunt districts for Montana elk in 2021, first, it’s important for hopeful applicants to fully understand the Montana draw system, which can, at times, be very complicated. For the main limited entry permit draws, Montana employs a random lottery that is weighted by bonus points. Additionally, bonus points are squared at every point level. This system heavily favors those with the most points; however, every applicant at every point level has a chance of drawing a tag every year. The bottom line: you’ll never draw if you never apply.
Montana nonresident big game combo licenses explained:
The prerequisite for all nonresidents in Montana will be the big game, elk or deer combination license.
- Elk combination license: Elk, conservation license, state lands, upland bird (excluding turkey), base hunting, AISPP and season fishing license.
- Deer combination license: Deer, conservation, state lands, upland bird (excluding turkey), base hunting, AISPP and season fishing license.
- Big game combination license: Deer, elk, conservation license, state lands, upland bird (excluding turkey), base hunting, AISPP and season fishing license.
The combination licenses essentially act as a general tag for Montana and must be drawn. Unlike limited entry permits, the combination licenses are distributed through a preference point system where 75% of the tags are reserved for the highest point holders. The remaining 25% of the tags are then put into a random draw with the remaining applicants who have not purchased any preference points.
Limited entry permits
Beyond the general tags and nonresident combinations, hunters can apply for limited entry permits. Successfully drawing a limited entry permit does not grant a second animal, but does augment the general tag to include new areas for hunters. These limited entry districts generally carry higher success rates and more mature animals, but this is not always the case. Montana FWP also uses some limited-entry districts as population control tools where they offer unlimited permits in hopes that the area will see a higher harvest for the year. Out of all of the limited entry districts for deer and elk, less than half actually offer better odds at trophy animals than some of the better general hunts.
Nonresident tag allocation
Montana grants nonresidents up to 10% of a district’s tag quota; however, the 10% is not guaranteed. Some years, the nonresident applicant pool will fill the entire 10% cap and other years it can be significantly less.
In addition to individual applications, hunters can also apply for deer and elk permits as a party. The maximum party size is five. When processing a party permit, the state will consider the average number of points between all of the party members and then round to the nearest whole number for a final party permit total. For example, a party with an average of 2.33 points would enter the draw at two points while a party with 2.66 points would enter at three.
When used correctly, party applications can be very beneficial. Residents and nonresidents can apply jointly, but the party will be forced into the 10% pool for available permits.
Points only option
If applicants are simply looking to build points for the current year—both preference and bonus— they can skip the expensive application prerequisites. Bonus points can be purchased between July 1 and Sept. 30 for $15 per species for residents and $25 for nonresidents. Additionally, nonresidents can purchase combination license preference points during the same timeframe for $50. You cannot apply for a permit or combination license and purchase a separate point in the same year. Only one point per species can be accumulated per year.
Preference point tip
Montana offers applicants a unique opportunity to purchase preference points prior to the draw deadline for use in the current year application on nonresident combos. Essentially, if anyone is willing to front the extra $50, they can apply with at least one preference point every year.
The difference between Montana's bonus and preference points
Montana has a bonus point system in place for all special permits (deer, elk, antelope, bighorn sheep, moose and mountain goat). Every year that you are unsuccessful in the draw — and you participate in the bonus point system — you will be awarded a point. When you apply in the draw, your accrued points are squared to increase the odds exponentially for the applicants with more accrued points. All base bonus points accumulate over time until you draw a permit.
Montana also has a preference point system for nonresident big game combination, elk combination and deer combination licenses. Preference points increase the chances of drawing a combination license and essentially move you ahead in line. 75% of all combination licenses awarded during the draw will be issued to hunters with preference points. Anyone applying with three preference points will draw the license before anyone with two and so on. Preference points accumulated will be used during the current drawing whether you purchase an additional preference point or not.
Montana's 2021 elk breakdown
Montana has been one of the more popular states in the West for elk for a long time and its popularity has only grown in recent years. Great hunting can be had with the general tag along with some exceptional opportunities for giant bulls on a handful of the limited entry tags. Populations are still way down from their historical highs; however, numbers have been slowly increasing over the most recent years and great hunting can be found.
Current (2019) elk herd condition
Winterkill has been at a fairly normal rate for the past few years and elk objective numbers are looking great across the state. Nearly every district in the eastern half of the state is at or above objective while roughly 30% of the western units are falling below their objective range.
Trophy potential for elk in Montana is good, particularly for a general tag, but it is important to keep in mind that Montana is a state that is managed for opportunity. Most hunters should expect that the general opportunity on a bull elk will be younger raghorns and the simple truth of the matter is that most units can produce some incredible bulls every year. There’s always the opportunity to stumble into a giant. A few select limited entry units routinely spit out bulls above the 370” Boone & Crockett (B&C) mark.
Private lands and ranches will generally provide the best opportunity for trophy bulls; however, there is an incredible amount of public and roadless lands available in the state for those willing to put in the work.
The hunt choices
The general season tag is really the prize jewel in Montana. The biggest bulls are routinely found on some of the better limited entry hunts, but the quality of most of these hunts rarely exceeds what can be found in the general units. Hunters — particularly those who invest several years into a particular area — can find some exceptional hunting on general tags.
General season hunts are available as over-the-counter (OTC) for residents, but must be drawn through the elk combination or big game combination license by nonresidents. Hunting areas can become crowded in general units; however, those willing to put in some effort can largely escape any outside hunting pressure.
For the most part, two preference points have secured a combination license for nonresidents, but with some of the changes across the west in 2021 — particularly Idaho elk licenses — it will be interesting to see what happens — if anything — to point creep in Montana in the coming years.
Montana’s top general elk hunting districts by number of bulls harvested*
|Hunt District||Bulls harvested||Trophy potential||6 point or better %||Public land %|
Due to Montana’s harvest data collection practices, it can be very difficult to find good usable data when researching hunts. One aspect I like to look at is the number of bulls harvested. A high number of bulls harvested can be a large number of things; however, If I was primarily interested in taking any legal elk I know that will provide a good starting spot. Additionally, I also like to compare these numbers with public land percentages as this will really start thinning out the list for me.
The units on this list are mostly handpicked for hunters simply looking to experience elk hunting with a decent chance of coming home with a legal bull. Other units in the state can certainly provide higher opportunities at larger and more mature bulls, but hunters may have to jump over some hurdles, including private land access, low elk densities or extreme backcountry.
Block Management Areas (BMA)
Along with the great public land options, hunters will also find cool opportunities to hunt private land through Montana’s Block Management Program. Under this program, private landowners enroll their parcels of land with Montana FWP to allow access for hunting in return for a monetary payment. This can be a great program for hunters to take advantage of and can certainly play into your application strategy in some areas. You can read more on this great program here.
Start scouting BMA areas in Montana now to plan for your upcoming 2021 hunts with our interactive 3D mapping platform!
Like many other states, the largest bulls in Montana will generally come off of limited entry units. When first diving into some of the limited entry units, it’s important to realize that a limited opportunity doesn’t always equate to better bulls. In some areas of the state, elk densities are lower so the state puts limits on the number of hunters in the field. Additionally, elk populations may be too heavy on other districts so the state issues unlimited permits in an attempt to entice a larger crowd of hunters.
In general, when targeting the largest bulls in the state, only a handful of units will truly offer hunters a unique hunting opportunity. This small selection of quality units forces long-time applicants into the same hunts year after year. Without a true preference point system for permits, you are playing the odds game every year — no matter your point level.
All things considered, applying for permits is cheap if you are already planning on hunting with the general tag so throwing your name in the hat is a no-brainer.
goHUNT's hitlist for limited entry units in Montana
|Hunt District||Trophy potential||6 point or better
|380||370”+||27%*||40%||Any legal weapon|
|310||360”+||58%||98%||Any legal weapon|
Any legal weapon
Any legal weapon
Any legal weapon
Any legal weapon
Any legal weapon
HD 380: This is arguably one of the most popular limited draw districts in Montana and for a good reason. The area routinely spits out some giant bulls every year, especially for those who can gain some private access. Those who draw the permit can hunt both the archery and rifle seasons if desired. Due to the popularity of this unit, the draw odds are intimidating, even with maximum points. In 2020, applicants in either the resident or nonresident pool with maximum points were still well under 10% odds of drawing
HD 310: This hunting district offers both a permit and general hunting opportunity. The permit is good for the Gallatin Special Management Area, commonly referred to as the “buffer zone,” which sits on the border of Yellowstone National Park. Only five permits are given out for this area; however, hunters will be treated to an incredible migration corridor and the potential for a bull of a lifetime.
HD 690: There is archery only permits and rifle only permits available. The large majority of lands in either district are private, but savvy hunters can find some excellent opportunities on public land. Every year, several bulls over 380” will be taken — particularly on the archery hunt — with 400” bulls not entirely uncommon. Out of all of the big bull units, either of these permits carries better odds than most others.
HD 410 and 417: There are two different permits available for each of these districts. One will allow hunters to hunt during both the archery and rifle season while the other is archery only, but is valid in both districts. The archery only permit can be drawn with just a handful of points for residents and anywhere from six to eight points for nonresidents. The multi-season permits will take near the maximum number of points. Either of these districts will offer hunters the opportunity to hunt in the famed Missouri River Breaks.
HD 447: This district is often referred to as the Highwood Mountains. A multi-season permit is available in this district along with the 900 Series archery only permit. Hunters with a general tag can hunt antlerless elk during these seasons and can increase some of the hunting pressure. There is a good deal of roadless country there for hunters willing to work for it although many of the largest bulls will be taken on private land every year.
HD 590: This area is largely private and hunters will find the best odds of success — particularly on big bulls — on these private pieces. Hunters can find some decent opportunities on public lands; however, these will be very few and far between.
HD 411: This area features a small collection of public land although these areas can be really good during the early archery season. Look for most of the bulls to move onto private property after the rut and as heavy snows push herds into lower elevations.
HD 621 and 622: There are three permit options available for both of these hunting districts. An archery only permit is available that is valid in 620, 621 and 622 as well as a rifle only permit valid in the same districts. Additionally, each district also offers a rifle only permit valid only in that unit. Holders of the multi-unit permits may not hunt on the Charles M. Russell Refuge. These hunts take place on the northern side of the Missouri River Breaks. For hunters looking for unique hunting experiences outside of general units while not having to wait years to pull a top-tier unit, this can be an excellent option
HD 631 and 632: There are two options for permits available in either of these districts: archery only or rifle only. Both permits are good in their respective districts as well as HD 630. The archery only permits are very popular among residents as they allow opportunities to hunt the famous Missouri River Breaks and can be drawn every few years. Nonresidents will generally be held to hunting every five years or so. For hunters looking for unique hunting experiences outside of general units while not having to wait years to pull a top-tier unit, this can be an excellent option.
The 900 Series archery permit
A unique tag for archery hunters to consider is the 900-20 permit. This permit—only good for the archery elk season—is usable in the following Hunt Districts: 401, 403, 411, 412, 426, 447, 450, 500, 502, 510, 511, 520, 530, 570, 575, 580, 590, 701, 702 and 704. While not every single one of these districts will produce a trophy quality bull, most will offer opportunities at bulls at or above the 300” mark. This permit must be listed as your first or second choice on your application.
How to find hidden gem elk areas in Montana
With so many options for hunting elk in Montana, the question of where to go can be a big dilemma. Because there are so many terrain features, hunters can really almost pick and choose a hunt to fit any desires they may have. This can include open sage country, deep and almost jungle-like timber, extreme backcountry and so on. As stated earlier, hunters shouldn’t expect a ton for trophy quality in most of the general units, but the unique opportunity to take bulls over the 320” benchmark is still highly plausible at the same time.
With some thorough research, hunters can find excellent hunting in general units, which can be a great way to bolster confidence as they wait for their name to be drawn for a coveted tag.
Use our Filtering 2.0 tool to search historical data and find a hunt that is correct for you. Utilize the trophy potential slider, public land filter and bulls harvested to really narrow down the options. After hunting Montana for most of my life, there are a few key things I like to look for in a general unit:
My top four things to consider when e-scouting general season Montana elk areas
|Elk habitat||This is an obvious no-brainer, but deserves its own spot in the limelight. We all know that elk need three things: food, water shelter. If you can find all three of those in close proximity you will generally find elk or elk sign. Even if something looks incredible on your maps it’s always important to keep one thing in mind when in the field: “Elk are where you find them.” Stay flexible while hunting. If you aren’t seeing sign then move.|
|Maintained trails||Maintained trails can be a great way to quickly access some of the backcountry areas. However, these areas will also attract other hunters and those with livestock. I will utilize trails from time to time; however, if my true destination includes a trail in the immediate area I’ll cross it off the list. Instead, consider basins you have to hike from the trail to reach and you will find yourself with far less competition.|
|Roads||Again, this is another no-brainer, but locating areas with less road activity will increase the likelihood of finding elk. The average hunter in Montana will generally not venture much more than a mile or mile and a half from a road — even less, if the going is tough. Western Montana is full of closed logging and mining roads; these can be excellent options for accessing deep basins, but will also draw some attention. In my experience, most hunters utilizing these closed roads will simply walk the roads and bugle. Getting off the beaten path could lead to some exciting action.|
|Ease of access||This is perhaps my biggest piece of advice. Don’t immediately look for the deepest and nastiest terrain you can find. There is nothing wrong with that, but hunters will often walk past elk to find elk. Some of my better spots in Montana were close to roads, but brutal to get into. Sometimes, even a square mile of good habitat that is unpressured will hold some incredible hunting action. Looking for areas where a massive climb is needed from the truck will weed out nearly all other competition. My mantra has always been “If it looks terrible to hike into then there is a high chance of finding elk there.” A lot of guys like to hunt the backcountry, but there is a definitive zone between the road hunters and the hardcore guys where good elk will live and die every year.|
Managing points and expectations
Preference points are utilized when drawing for Montana’s deer, elk, or big game combo licenses.
I have 0 to 1 preference points. What can I expect?
Applicants with zero preference points saw odds at around 65% for both the elk and big game combination license in 2020. With some changes in tag availability in some western states, namely Idaho, it will be interesting to see what happens to draw odds at a given point level in the coming years. Odds really don’t move much at one point, jumping only a few percentages; however, as applicant numbers continue to rise, the gap between these two point levels will continue to expand.
I have 2+ preference points. What can I expect?
Applicants at the two-point level saw 100% odds for drawing in 2020. Things should stay the same during the 2021 draw period, but anything is possible and we will be monitoring this one closely.
Permit elk tags
Montana is a state that is managed for the opportunity and, because of this, does not have the number of top quality districts as found in surrounding states. Good hunt districts are available across the state with four points or under, but the top-tier districts will require maximum points and, even then, the odds will rarely eclipse 40% even for residents.
I have 0 elk bonus points. What can I expect?
Before beginning your application strategy, it will be important to first decide your end goal for Montana. Mainly, do you plan on hunting Montana on general tags or are you only interested in building points to use later? As a nonresident, applicants will need to apply for their combo license in addition to any extra permits. If you are unsuccessful in the draw, you are only granted an 80% refund of your total application cost if you are not interested in hunting the general districts. If you wish to hunt other states, you can simply purchase the preference point and bonus point and move on. If you do plan on hunting the general season regardless, then put in for your district of choice. Because it’s a lottery system, there is always a chance of drawing!
Some of the unlimited permit districts can be a good option; however, drawing these will not allow a hunter to gain or accrue a point. Additionally, drawing one of these permits will forfeit any points you may have been holding. In the western half of the state, HD 270 is an unlimited district and can be a great choice. A good chunk of elk found in that district will be residents, but later in the year — particularly with heavy snows — this area becomes a massive migration corridor and new elk will continually pour in. Hunting pressure can be high; however, those willing to work around the crowds can be greatly rewarded.
In general, at this point level, if you have a desired top-tier district you’d like to hunt, then your best bet is to say a prayer and throw your name in the hat.
What can I do with 3 or 8 elk bonus points?
With three to four points both residents and nonresidents will see very few additional districts (compared to those with zero to two points). However, nonresidents will now see a few more districts available with 100% odds, which can be an attractive use of points. These will primarily consist of archery only seasons with most of the “good” rifle districts taking maximum points to draw.
Some good options here will include the Missouri River Breaks tags in Hunt Districts: 410, 417 620, 621, 622, 630, 631 or 632. Additionally, at this point level, nonresidents stand a great chance of drawing the 900 Series archery tag, which is also a very good consideration.
Residents closer to the eight point mark are almost sitting in no man’s land. Here, they can burn some points and draw a tag that will generally take under five or continue to hang onto their points in hopes of getting lucky in the random odds on a top-tier unit.
What can I expect with 10 or more elk bonus points?
At this point level, residents and nonresidents are nearing the maximum point capacity. Applying for anything other than the top-tier districts will merely result in burning points on hunting districts that could be drawn on far less. Odds will still be steep, but your odds simply won’t improve beyond this point with Montana’s drawing system.
Applicants at the high tier point levels will generally be focusing on hunts in 310, 380, 410 and 690 although some great rifle hunts can also be had in any of the additional Missouri Breaks HDs (620, 621, 622, 630, 631, and 632).