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Hunters form statewide coalition to tackle elk management

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Posted at 3:56 PM, Dec 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-14 17:56:20-05

MISSOULA — After almost a year of watching political decisions degrade some of Montana’s wildlife management, hunters have come together to see if public involvement still has the power to sway policy.

Over the weekend, hunters from various groups including the Montana Wildlife Federation and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers met to devise a statewide strategy to lobby the Gianforte administration to return to sound elk management and to preserve the opportunity for resident, do-it-yourself hunters, instead of rich out-of-state hunters.

The most recent motivation for this effort, dubbed the Elk Management Coalition, is Tuesday’s Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting where commissioners will consider an FWP proposal to cut the number of public-land elk bull permits by half in order to allow the hunting of an unlimited number of bull elk on private land.

Some Montana hunters say that would open the door wider to landowners who want to “ranch for wildlife,” that is, keeping their ranches locked up to all but paying customers.

Montana hunters have fought policies enabling private outfitting for years because it favors certain large landowners and outfitters who do little to help control elk populations because they want plenty of elk on their land for their clients. A guided elk hunt of a few days can cost thousands of dollars, depending on the amenities offered.

Meanwhile, many resident hunters are limited to hunting on public land or block management program land. But once the hunting season begins, hunter success can decline as deer and elk flee public land for safer private parcels, where some landowners charge sportsmen to hunt or allow no hunting at all.

The situation may have become worse during the land rush of the pandemic, as more people from out-of-state have bought up ranches and put up gates. For example, recent news that conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch has bought the Matador Ranch in the Paradise Valley from Koch Industries for $200 million has some wondering what will happen there.

“The current drive towards a ‘pay to play’ scenario where the general public loses hunting opportunities in favor of paying clients is part of the reason that we’re in this situation,” said Anaconda conservationist Chris Marchion. “Landowners have every right to control access to their land, but those decisions have consequences in terms of herd management. Until we address that issue, along with so many others, we’re just going to have the same fight, with more frustration, anger, and conflict.”

The issue wasn’t as big three or four decades ago when elk weren’t as plentiful. Since then, through careful management, herds have grown and been introduced in many areas of Montana. But the success has led to problems for ranchers, as elk gravitated to private land where they damaged fences and haystacks. Such landowners can suffer losses if their neighbors harbor elk.

The normal answer for wildlife managers would be to increase the size of the elk harvest to reduce population size. But that doesn’t work if hunters can’t get to where the elk are. So, for the past decade or so, that has been the crux of the question: how to deal with landowners in order to allow hunters to kill more elk.

That is what the Elk Management Coalition is working on. Throughout next year, they want to travel the state talking to hunters, guides and landowners, with the result being a citizen’s proposal that “outlines better elk management policies than currently exist and to advance legislation that seeks to solve contentious issues, rather than exacerbate them.”

It’s taken almost a year of resident hunters suffering political blows to prompt such a unified effort. With a Republican governor at the helm, a number of legislative bills sought to enable ranching for wildlife by proposing to grant extra hunting tags or the ability to choose who should get those tags to landowners. Newly appointed FWP Director Hank Worsech – a former executive director of the Montana Board of Outfitters – backed the bills, saying they were alternatives to making elk shoulder seasons permanent.

Montana hunters tried to oppose several changes this year, but in some cases, the public showing was somewhat meager, due in part to the pandemic but also to a lack of organization.

Then, with one day to go in the Legislative session, Republicans snuck a rider that benefitted outfitters into an FWP language-cleanup bill. The rider made many more nonresident licenses available for those who hunted with outfitters and it gave drawing preference points to nonresidents who hunted with outfitters. Gov. Greg Gianforte signed the bill, despite hunters’ groups asking him not to, arguing that similar stand-alone bills had died in committee.

Since the Legislature, Worsech and a commission dominated by Gianforte appointees made shoulder seasons permanent, angering some hunters. FWP used to employ mainly damage hunts to reduce elk on private ranch but re-introduced shoulder seasons in 2016. Because of hunter protest, FWP created requirements to encourage landowners to allow public hunters on their land. However, over the following three years, FWP didn’t enforce its landowner requirements, disregarding its deal with public-land hunters.

Faced with an administration that has repeatedly favored outfitters and associated landowners over constituent hunters and science-based conservation, Montana’s hunting groups announced Monday that they’ve joined in a more united front to find bottom-up solutions to the problem. They’re prepared to make that known on Tuesday.

“The legislature has spent a lot of time, energy, and effort ensuring that hunters and landowners remain on opposite sides of this issue. It’s time to skip the partisan politics and get down to the business of fixing Montana’s approach to elk management,” said Walker Conyngham, Hellgate Hunters & Anglers president. “Our elected officials in Helena should be willing to follow the priorities of Montana citizens, and we hope to bring them critical legislative measures in 2023 that would have broad support from hunters, landowners, and outfitters.”

Hunters insist that the first step should be focusing on rewriting the FWP elk management plan before making other changes because so many decisions ride on population objectives. An elk objective is a population limit based on habitat carrying capacity and human tolerance in each hunting district. The current plan was developed more than a decade ago, and a lot of things have changed since then, including the addition of more people and houses to some places while tolerance has increased in some areas.

“In eastern Montana, elk populations have grown, but the management prescriptions haven’t caught up,” said Glasgow hunter Justin Schaaf, former member of the FWP Elk Advisory Working Group. “For example, Region 7 (with) over 30,000 square miles has a herd objective of only 750 elk. That’s so far out of line with what the vast majority of Montanans want to have as an objective that it’s silly.”

Hunting show host Randy Newberg reiterated some of the suggestions he’s tried to make in the past to bring elk numbers down, including getting rid of the shoulder seasons, which condition elk to find private land sanctuaries and keep them there beyond hunting seasons. He’d also like to help those landowners who suffer losses due to neighbors who harbor elk. As long as the landowners allow some cow elk hunting, they should get financial reimbursement from the state General Fund for their losses, although that would take Legislative action.

“Help those who want to be part of the solution,” Newberg said.

The Elk Management Coalition says such suggestions show Montanans – not just the rich ones – deserve a voice in elk management, so the department should put some decisions on hold. Tuesday may show whether FWP and its commission agree.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.