In Montana, hunting isn’t just a hobby or a sport. It’s a way of life.
In the past year, there have been many updates to Montana hunting law. Some of them are a little confusing. Marty Judnich, trusted Montana lawyer and an outdoorsman himself, is here to explain the new changes to Montana hunting laws and what they mean for you.
As a responsible hunter, knowing the law is your duty.
Don’t get caught by the game warden and then say, “I didn’t know!”
Let’s start with the basics
Over the years, the lawyers at the Judnich Law Office have heard from many hunters facing fines, citations, and even jail time for breaking hunting laws in Montana. Let’s take a close look at some of the most common transgressions and how to hunt within the law.
“What time can I start hunting? As soon as I can see clearly?”
In the state of Montana you can legally hunt from ½ hour before sunrise to ½ hour after sunset. Use published sunrise and sunset tables to stay within the law — don’t estimate. Game wardens are particularly aware of these times and you will get caught if they hear gunshots outside of legal hunting hours.
In order to legally hunt in Montana, you must obtain a hunting license — or what is commonly referred to as a “tag” and a conservation license for a specific species and sex of an animal – before you hunt it.
To purchase a license, any person born after January 1, 1985, must provide proof of successful completion of a hunter education course. Folks older than that don’t need to provide that information unless hunting with archery equipment. All licenses are valid for the taking of big game with a firearm.
However, if taking game with a bow and arrow or “archery equipment”, you must first obtain a bow and arrow license, which may have bowhunter education requirements. Plan ahead and get these requirements done before applying.
Some hunting licenses are over-the-counter types – where you can purchase them at many locations throughout the state and are guaranteed that license. Other licenses are obtained by special draw – where you apply for a specific license in a specific hunting region for a specific species and/or sex of animal. There is no guarantee for these licenses, but Fish, Wildlife & Parks does list some statistical probabilities of being successful.
Non-resident hunters have slightly different options for purchasing big game licenses, but individual game and combination licenses are available. In addition, a Montana resident landowner may sponsor a non-resident for a deer combo license. This is a discounted license with good odds.
Replacing a lost license is easy and usually referred to as a “duplicate” license. Any authorized Fish, Wildlife & Parks license provider can provide you a replacement license if lost for $5.
Bonus Point System
Montana is a bonus point accrual system for applying for draw licenses. Bonus points can increase your chances of drawing a special license. Every year you apply for a draw license and are not successful in getting it, you get a bonus point instead to use in the future. You may also purchase additional bonus points to increase your odds.
“What do I need to do with my license and tag? Can I just leave them at home for safekeeping?”
Absolutely not! Your license must be on your person when you are hunting. Don’t leave it in the glovebox of your truck and definitely don’t leave them at home.
“I’m not going to be able to get out this season. Can my buddy use my tag?”
No! Montana hunting laws prohibit you from lending your license or your tag to let someone else harvest game for you. That’s 100% illegal. Don’t do it!
“How do I validate my tag?”
A common problem in Montana is the proper tagging of a harvested animal.
Montana is on the cusp of joining many other states in implementing an electronic validation program by which you can validate your harvest utilizing electronic means, like a cell phone.
However, as of the beginning of 2022, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks states that the program continues to be in beta testing and may not be online for use during the 2022 season.
So, the good old-fashioned way of validating a hunting license may continue until then. The standard Montana procedure is to physically validate the hunting license.
The correct way of properly validating or “tagging” a game animal once the hunter has come to the site of kill is:
- Cut out the proper month and day of the kill from the license.
Pro-tip – Montana requires the hunter to print their licenses from home, usually on regular printer paper, which will be destroyed by use and/or weather. Laminating your license or printing it on waterproof paper will make this process easier and ensure the validated tag is able to be evaluated by a warden or landowner.
- The validated license must be attached to the animal’s carcass before it is removed from the site of kill or before the hunter leaves the site of kill. Attach it in any way you like, but it must be able to be removed and inspected by a warden or landowner, so don’t attach it in a way that will destroy it upon being removed.
- The license must stay with the meat until the meat is consumed.
Site of the kill is defined as the location where a game animal expires and the hunter takes physical possession of the carcass. Obviously, specific facts for a hunt can confuse this definition depending on where an animal expires versus where the actual possession takes place.
Good rule of thumb: Site of the kill is where you first can safely prepare the carcass for field dressing or packing.
“Can I hunt on private land?”
In Montana, you may not hunt on private property without first obtaining permission of the landowner or authorized agent of the property. Contrary to popular belief, even if private land is not marked by orange markers, you may not hunt on unmarked land unless you have express permission from the owner. You will still see orange markers in Montana, but the duty is upon the hunter, not the landowner.
“I got cited and fined for hunting on private land but it wasn’t posted. Can I get out of it?”
No. Knowing the owner of the land you’re hunting on is your responsibility. Get yourself onX hunting maps to show public and private lands.
“If I shoot an animal while hunting on public lands but it dies on private lands, what should I do?”
Just like hunting on private lands, retrieving an animal from private lands requires permission in advance. You can’t just go grab it.
If you have trouble getting permission from the landowner, contact Montana Fish & Wildlife. They want people to hunt legally and they want people to harvest animals. They’ll help you out.
“What weapons can I use to take game?”
Montana defines two broad types of seasons/weapons for the taking of game: Archery Season and General Season.
Archery Season & Archery Equipment
This is limited to “archery equipment” only. That is defined as a hunting bow such as a longbow, flatbow, recurve bow, compound bow, or any combination of them. A bow must launch an arrow and derive an arrow’s propulsion from the bending of a bow.
A bow must be hand-drawn by a single and direct uninterrupted pulling action of the shooter. The bowstring must be moved from brace height (no pulling action on the bow) to the full draw position by the muscle power of the shooter’s body. The bow must be hand-held, and one hand shall hold the bow and the other hand draw the bowstring (handheld releases are fine).
The bowstring must be moved and held at all points in the draw cycle entirely by the muscle power of the shooter until release. These definitions create a significant difference between a bow and a crossbow.
Crossbows are an item of recent interest.
In 2021, Senate Bill 111 was proposed to the Montana Legislature to allow a crossbow to be used in archery season for people with certain disabilities. The bill was not successful but began an ongoing conversation about the topic as other states in America have allowed crossbows to be utilized during archery-only seasons.
Time will tell for Montana.
Currently, in Montana, a crossbow is specifically not considered “archery equipment.” Other items not considered “archery equipment” in Montana are:
- Any device with a gun-type stock or having a mechanism that holds the bowstring at partial or full draw without the shooter’s muscle power
- Any bow for which the bow or an attachment to the bow contacts, supports, or guides the arrow from a point rearward of the brace height
- Any electronic or battery-powered devices attached to a hunting bow or arrow that aids in the taking or locating of any game animal. A bow sight may not use artificial light. Exceptions here are cameras mounted to a bow for filming and lighted nocks for arrows.
Firearms & General Season
“Firearms” are generally rifles, handguns, and muzzleloaders. Currently, crossbows fall under the general category of firearms and not archery equipment. Firearms may only be used during the general hunting season, and are not allowed to be utilized during archery season. However, archery equipment may continue to be used during the General season in addition to the archery season.
“Can I use a spotlight to hunt at night?”
No! When hunting in Montana, you can’t use any artificial light like a spotlight. No artificial light or infrared scope/sight can be on your rifle.
“I just got a new crossbow. Can I use it during archery season?”
According to Montana’s hunting laws, crossbows are “non-archery” weapons because you’re not physically drawing them and because they have a gun stock. Do not use your crossbow during Montana’s archery season.
“I got a new game camera. How can I use it legally?”
You can use your game camera but you can’t:
- Use video to track animal movement while hunting
- Use motion sensors to track or identify animals
- Use real-time video — this includes drones which we’ll talk more about soon
“My buddy used a recorded call while hunting mountain lions. Can I use an elk call I recorded during my elk hunt?”
Nope. In Montana, hunters can only use recorded sounds during predator hunts. They can’t be used in big game hunts.
“Is it legal to carry and use a walkie-talkie when out hunting in Montana?”
Yes — but just like everything there are some exceptions.
The only reason you should use a walkie-talkie while hunting is for safety and emergency communications. It’s illegal to use one to:
- Find game or get an advantage while hunting
- Avoid game check stations
- Aid in unlawful activities (duh!)
“I saw a buck without antlers. Is that the same as hunting a doe?”
In Montana hunting law, the regulations differentiate between “antlered” and “antlerless” animals, not does and bucks.
For elk there are 3 categories of animals:
- Brow-tined elk – The big boys everyone wants to hunt. Look for branched spikes over 4” from the main beam
- Spike elk – Elk whose spikes don’t branch and that are less than 4” from the main beam
- Cows – Any animal without antlers or whose antlers don’t meet the definitions of brow-tined or spike elk
“Can I hunt wolves in Montana?”
Wolves may be legally hunted with a valid hunting license in Montana. Up to 20 wolves may be taken by a hunter in a hunting year, but no more than 10 via traditional hunting and no more than 10 via trapping.
When hunting wolves, some differences exist in the way you can hunt them versus other big game. For example, electronic calls are allowed, as well as baiting for wolves with some area-specific exceptions.
Lastly, wolves can also be hunted on private land outside of daylight hours with the use of artificial lights, thermal imaging, or even night vision scopes.
What is a “Guide”
In Montana, there are strict guidelines outlining who and what is considered a “guide” and a “guided hunt”. A guide is defined as a person who is employed by or who has contracted independently with a licensed outfitter and who accompanies a participant during a hunt, for activities the outfitter is licensed.
In basic terms, a guide works for a licensed outfitter, and they are guiding you on a type of hunt that the outfitter is licensed to outfit.
An outfitter is a person or company that provides access, equipment, and/or guides for a hunt. They supervise a licensed guide.
Neither resident nor non-resident hunters are required to have a guide to hunt in Montana.
Montana Hunting No-Nos — Don’t Do This!
Montana does not allow anyone to hunt big game or attempt to hunt by the aid of bait, salt, trap, snare, or set gun. Basically, you cannot put out a food or salt attractant. An exception here is scent-related products like deer estrous as it is not food or salt-related.
You can’t take or attempt to take any animal with the aid of projected light (spotlighting). Also unlawful are infra-red light scopes, scopes that project an artificial light to illuminate the target or thermal imaging devices.
You can’t use dogs to chase game animals. They may be utilized to recover or locate wounded animals if the handler maintains physical control of the dog at all times by means of a maximum 50-foot lead attached to the dog.
Drones are considered “aircraft” under Montana law. Whether a drone or an airplane is used, the same laws apply. You cannot do any of the following from either a drone or an airplane/helicopter in Montana:
- Unlawful to shoot a game animal from an aircraft
- Unlawful to use aircraft to concentrate, pursue, drive, rally, or stirring up any game animal
- Unlawful to use to locate game animals for the purpose of hunting those animals during the same hunting day the person or aircraft is airborne
- Unlawful to provide information about animals for another person for the purpose of hunting on the same day the person or aircraft is airborne
The bottom line here – if using a drone or plane, you can only utilize that information for hunting the next or subsequent hunting day to the day it was airborne.
So that’s it. Enjoy your time in the outdoors this year. If you get in trouble for breaking a hunting law in Montana, we can help. Contact the Judnich Law Office. We offer a free and confidential consultation and are always here to help.
Marty is a former criminal prosecutor in the Cascade County Attorney’s Office and now uses that experience to defend those accused of crimes. A University of Montana School of Law graduate, Marty focuses his practice on personal injury and criminal defense and is a premier DUI defense attorney. He is also well versed in the insurance claims industry and has negotiated significant settlements with nearly every major insurance company.