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New elk unit offers opportunities in southern North Dakota; Bismarck man has successful hunt

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Jason Burtness with the bull elk he shot in 2020 on the Standing Rock Reservation.

Jason Burtness has been on big game hunts in several states, and among the Bismarck man’s favorites is a trophy elk hunting experience made possible by an agreement between North Dakota and Standing Rock Reservation wildlife officials.

Burtness’ 2020 hunt in Unit E6, which was formed by the 2017 agreement, ranks “right at the top” of his hunting outings.

“That’s easy for me to say because I shot a giant elk,” the 51-year-old Burtness said.

A giant indeed. The bull measured 440 4/8 inches -- calculated from antler length, girth and width measurements. It's ranked by The Boone and Crocket Club, a conservation organization formed in 1887, as the 16th largest nontypical bull ever taken. Nontypical refers to antlers that because of genetics or years-old injuries grow back each year with a unique appearance.

Burtness took advantage of the unit’s location, less than two hours from Bismarck, to make scouting and hunting runs that otherwise would have been much more difficult. Several times he went on morning hunts and got back to Bismarck in time for work.

Those opportunities started after Gov. Doug Burgum and then-Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault signed a memorandum of understanding five years ago regulating an elk hunting season on Standing Rock. State and tribal wildlife agencies saw the opportunity to work together and share resources on management of the herd, and provide elk hunting opportunities for tribal and nontribal members under a single tag.

The new unit is in Sioux County, east of state Highway 31, in an area that’s full of rough country -- deep draws and canyons -- that’s ideal for elk and challenging for hunters.

Elk and the tribe

Elk were first seen on the reservation in small numbers in 2010, and they range mostly in the Porcupine Hills area northeast of Selfridge, according to Standing Rock Game and Fish Director Jeff Kelly. The herd now has more than 100 cows and calves and about 40 bulls, a rather high ratio, he said.

“If they’re not managed, disease is a big risk,” he said, citing epizootic hemorrhagic disease as an example.  “We had one EHD case a couple years ago. Other than that we’ve been pretty fortunate.”

The tribe some years ago ran elk in a pasture, and when the operation was shut down the elk were shipped to the western part of the state. Kelly theorizes some of them returned to the place they were born and the herd grew. A harvest plan, several years in the making, was formed from a combined study involving the state and tribe. Some of the information for the plan came from a project conducted by a University of North Dakota student, in which workers used a helicopter to net four cows and fitted them with radio collars so their movements could be tracked.

Kelly said hunting pressure could push some of the herd out of the area and toward the Grand River in South Dakota.

“There’s plenty of area out there for them to move into,” Kelly said. “We hope the numbers increase.”

Hunting season

The tribe in 2022 offered 13 any elk tags and 32 antlerless tags to tribal members and nonmembers through lottery and auction. The state offers four any elk and 10 antlerless tags for the unit. Getting an any elk tag comes with small odds, but the chances are better for a cow tag. The state tags are a “once in a lifetime” draw, said Casey Anderson, wildlife division chief for North Dakota Game and Fish.

The tribe also sets aside one antlerless tag for each of the eight districts on the reservation. Each district sends a hunter to harvest an elk, and the meat is distributed among district members.

Hunters can use archery equipment through the entire season. The use of a rifle is legal only during the rifle portion of the season.

Hunters must notify tribal game and fish about when and where they will hunt.

“We want them to call so we know somebody is hunting elk in that area, and in case we want to get samples for studies,” Kelly said.

A different hunt

Another part of the push behind the agreement was hunter access. The reservation is a checkerboard of tribal and deeded land, which led to confusion about where a nontribal member could hunt. With a tribal tag, hunters can go anywhere in the unit provided they have landowner permission to hunt deeded land. The state tag allows them to hunt tribal land if they have first contacted Standing Rock Game and Fish.

The agreement enables tribal and state wildlife departments to utilize each other’s resources for management of the herd, for the health of the elk, better hunting opportunities, and less damage to crops and fences. Officials meet to share information and make decisions on herd management and annual license numbers.

Success rates on the hunt “have been good for elk," Anderson said, referring to the unique challenge an elk hunt presents. The cow success rate in 2021 was about 50% and the bull numbers were slightly higher.

“They’re a different beast,” he said, adding that hunter input on the Standing Rock unit has drawn no complaints that were out of the ordinary, and most hunters “are relishing the opportunity.”

“It’s not a tag that’s a guaranteed harvest of an animal,” Anderson said.

It’s a hunt that’s different than the heavily wooded northeast part of the state, where he said hunters have to be “ambitious or lucky” just to see an elk.

“This one they should get eyes on them,” Anderson said. “Connecting is different.”

A successful hunt

Burtness got eyes on one and connected, thanks to preseason scouting and multiple hunting trips made available by the new unit.

Starting Sept. 28, he hunted 22 straight days before bagging his bull on Oct. 19. He watched two bands of elk around midday, then he and a friend made a stalk to an area where they’d seen two bulls fighting. His friend found the bull through binoculars, and they stalked to 120 yards. Burtness fired when the bull got up, then twice more, hitting it all three times.

The Unit 6 hunt was “tough, typical North Dakota weather, and it was fun to end up getting that elk,” Burtness said. “We knew he was around but we didn’t expect to run into him. Miraculously we found him.”

Burtness said he appreciates the efforts of the agencies that formed the agreement and is grateful to the landowners who give hunters access.

“I’m thankful for the opportunity,” Burtness said. “We have good public land in North Dakota, but without farmers and ranchers it’s not possible.”

Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com

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