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State commission considers changes to bull elk permits

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
Hagadone News Network | December 9, 2021 12:00 AM

Hunters, anglers and others who enjoy spending time in the outdoors of Northwest Montana may want to consider taking a careful look at some of the proposals on the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission’s agenda for next week’s meeting.

The Commission will meet Tuesday, Dec. 14 in person at the State Capitol in room 152. The meeting begins at 8:30 a.m.

This year is a biennial season-setting year for hunting regulations. For the bulk of this meeting, the commission will review and approve a regulation proposal package to go out for public comment.

Once the commission approves a regulation proposal package, Fish, Wildlife and Parks staff around the state will present the proposals and take comments both at in-person and virtual meetings.

The most controversial proposal is one that would change the number of limited-entry bull elk permits in some hunter districts where elk numbers exceed the state’s population objective.

According to information from Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, limited-entry bull permits available in these districts valid on public lands would be cut in half, further limiting the public land hunter's ability to draw these tags, largely rendering bonus points useless along with devaluing these permits.

“It's the privatization of a public resource - the King's deer - and they're not even attempting to hide it,” Montana BHA said in a news release on its website. “This will change the face of elk hunting in Montana in ways not seen in decades, catering to landowners and outfitters at the expense of our opportunity to hunt.”

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Montana has seen a dramatic increase in elk populations in many hunting districts around the state in recent years. Currently, 14 hunting districts are at least 200 percent above population objectives. Data also show an overcrowding of elk populations on private land, limiting opportunities for public land hunters.

“What we know is the status quo isn’t working,” said FWP Director Hank Worsech. “So, we’re going to propose a few new strategies we think can finally help us make progress in addressing the problem, both for hunters and for landowners.”

Required by law to achieve population objectives set by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, FWP proposes targeted provisions to fulfill the statutory requirement of managing to population objective, address the increasing impacts of high elk populations on Montana farmers and ranchers, and improve quality opportunities for hunters. Those numerical objectives are identified in the current elk management plan.

The targeted provisions for 14 hunting districts with limited permits and over population objectives are:

In all 14 hunting districts, FWP proposes to remove some or all of the limited either-sex permits.

In eight of those hunting districts, where problems with distribution, population and access tend to be most acute, FWP is proposing to retain the limited either-sex permits but make them valid only on public land. In most of these districts, the permit quotas are proposed to be half of the 2021 quotas. The hunting districts proposed for this structure are: 411, 417, 426, 535 (newly proposed for 2022), 590, 702, 704 and 705.

In Region 1, there are proposed changes to deer and elk hunting regulations, district boundaries and season structures. There are also possible changes in the new black bear hound hunting season for next spring.

ALSO ON the agenda a few proposed fish removal projects in Region 1. Officials are considering the mechanical or chemical removal of non-native brown trout, hybrid cutthroat, rainbow and brook trout from Big Rock Creek, a tributary to the Thompson River, for the purpose of conserving westslope cutthroat trout, a native species.

Another proposal is using chemicals to remove Yellowstone cutthroat trout from Rainbow Lake in the Ten Lakes Scenic Area. It would also be done for the purpose of conserving Westslope cutthroat trout.

The plan calls for restocking the lake with Westslope trout and having a fishable population within two or three years.

Also, in land conservation manners, the agency is proposing to place approximately 113,951 acres of highly productive working forestland (former Weyerhaeuser timberlands) around the Thompson Chain of Lakes between Kalispell and Libby under a conservation easement.

The proposal involves two landowners – Southern Pine Montana and Green Diamond Resources Co., which would result in two separate conservation easements. The proposed easements, to be held by Fish, Wildlife and Parks, would allow the landowners to retain ownership and sustainable harvest of these timberlands, preclude development, protect important wildlife habitat and key landscape connectivity, and provide public access and associated recreational opportunities.

The U.S. Forest Service Forest Legacy Program, Habitat Montana, and other grants or contributions would be likely funding sources if this proposal were to proceed to completion.

This project would conserve key winter range and a movement corridor for elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, and moose as well as critical habitat for bull trout, grizzly bear, and Canada lynx.

Conservation easement terms would preclude the human-wildlife conflicts that come with residential development of properties within wildlife habitat, especially those with grizzly bears, black bears and mountain lions.

The property currently provides over 121,000 days per year of public hunting and angling that would be secured in perpetuity under this proposal.

The project borders the Thompson Chain of Lakes State Park, the 142,000-acre Thompson-Fisher Conservation Easement, and the 100,000-acre U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Lost Trail Conservation Area as well as the Kootenai National Forest and Department of Natural Resource and Conservation lands.

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