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Elk management a hot debate

by Warren Illi
| August 26, 2021 12:00 AM

Want to generate a heated discussion among hunters? Just start talking about elk management in Montana.

I think most hunters would agree that Montana’s elk hunting is among the best in the world.

So, with great elk hunting, what are the issues that cause heated discussions? In just four words, availability of bull elk.

The current state-wide elk management plan was prepared in 2005. It is outdated, so Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is preparing a new state elk management plan that will generate lots of public discussion.

Is elk hunting or at least the chance to see and harvest a big bull elk becoming a rich man’s sport? In Montana, as well as all of North America, wildlife is managed by what is called the North American Wildlife Model.

This model asserts that all wildlife, even wildlife species that are born and live their entire lives on private land, belong to the public. In most of the rest of the world, wildlife belongs to the landowner.

For most wildlife species such as song birds, rodents, worms and other non-commodity wildlife species, species that have no commercial value, the public ownership of wildlife on private land does not generally cause a problem.

But when you have wildlife species such as elk, especially big bull elk that have a well-known cash market value, then that is where the public wildlife/private land issues become very difficult to solve.

Many large cattle ranches in Montana include thousands of acres, often tens of thousands of acres. Frequently these large land holdings are intermingled with thousands of acres of public land without legal public access.

Many of these large private land holdings are located in Central Montana.

Cattle ranching as well as most other Montana agricultural businesses have a tough time making a profit. But many of these large ranches provide excellent habitat for elk which seem to like a mix of forest land and open grass meadows.

In addition, these large farms and ranches usually have irrigated hay crops and other agricultural crops. These irrigated crops provide rich succulent foods for many species of wildlife, especially deer and elk.

So, let’s assume you are a farmer or rancher, trying to scratch out a living. One day, a hunter comes along and requests permission to hunt deer or elk on your ranch.

Since Montana is not known as a high-wage state and there are lots of public land where the hunting public can hunt free, the hunter knocking on your door is reluctant to pay you, the landowner, for the right to hunt on your private land.

Now, a second guy knocks on your door. This time it is a commercial outfitter and guide. He offers you several thousand dollars to have exclusive hunting rights on your ranch.

That payment is not for the right to kill the public wildlife, but a payment to hunt or trespass on the private land while pursuing the public deer or elk.

Common business sense dictates that you as rancher will accept the payment from the outfitter. A good outfitter, controlling hunting on several large adjacent private ranches can manage the elk on those ranches to restrict the killing of young bulls, allowing them to become older, more valuable mature bulls.

Well-heeled hunters, especially wealthy out-of-state hunters, will pay dearly for a chance to hunt and kill a big bull elk. Those pricey high-end bull elk hunts provide more income to both the outfitter and landowner.

The less affluent Montana citizen hunter is left out. They can’t access the public bull elk on the private land.

The real money is in big bulls, not cow elk. So, cow elk frequently go under-harvested, resulting in large elk herds that exceed the carrying capacity of the elk habitat.

So, these excess elk dine on the hay and crops of other ranches, causing a game damage management problem.

Now add to this mix an increasing number of new wealthy out-of-state ranch buyers who do not allow any hunting.

They are wealthy, so don’t need outfitter income. These ranches become a sanctuary for big game during the hunting season.

Unlike the large elk herds in Central Montana, in Western Montana, many elk herds are below FWP elk population goals. Many hunters believe these low elk populations are being held

down by an excessive number of large carnivores or predators such as wolves, mountain lions and bears.

But in recent years, very vocal members of the public have risen to support protection of these predators. They express the belief that predators have as much right to live as deer and elk.

I’m not sure if this public support for large predators is really a support for predators or a back-handed way to oppose sport hunting.

There are many other elk management issues that will be cussed and discussed during the preparation of the new state elk management plan.

Our state Constitution requires extensive public involvement when writing these types of plans.

So, you can be assured you will have a chance to voice your opinion before the final plan is adopted. When the final plan is done, no one will be entirely happy.

But that seems to be the nature of government plans these days.

Meanwhile, enjoy the great hunting that is available in Montana.