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Proper elk management requires collaboration

| December 19, 2021 12:00 AM

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ proposal to alter its elk management strategy drew a “firestorm” of public comments over the last month. Those aren’t our words — that’s how FWP Director Hank Worsech described the feedback he and his department received in response to the decidedly contentious plan that would have opened up bull elk licenses on private property in some areas, while reducing the availability of licenses on public lands.

Scores of outdoors and public access advocates, like Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, painted the plan as “privatization of a public resource … and they’re not even attempting to hide it.”

“FWP’s proposal is clearly an attempt by some monied interests to exploit bull elk for their personal gain, while thumbing their noses at Montana hunters,” state Rep. Marilyn Marler wrote in a recent op-ed. “It contradicts Montana’s hunting tradition, which treats hunters and landowners as partners in wildlife management.”

There’s no doubt that Montanans treasure our state’s wildlife resources and public access, and Worsech heard that loud and clear following his department’s half-baked plan. Thankfully, he announced at Tuesday’s Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting that the department was ditching the proposal, and instead has put forward a handful of new ideas that are set to go up for public comment this month.

To be sure, elk overpopulation in some Montana hunting districts is a legitimate issue that needs attention.

According state data, 14 hunting districts are at least 200% above elk population objectives. Data also show an overcrowding of elk on private land, which limits opportunities for public land hunters.

Worsech said his intention with the initial plan was to break away from “status quo” and try something new — and we can’t fault him for that. But tipping the scales in favor of wealthy, private landowners while hindering public hunting opportunities was never going to sit well with the vast majority of Montana outdoorsmen and women.

We are pleased to hear that in response to the widespread criticism, Worsech is putting together a committee of various stakeholders to come up with fresh ideas for managing elk populations that address public hunting access and the concerns of private landowners. Gov. Greg Gianforte has signed off on creation of the committee, as well.

This collaborative approach is the correct path forward that will best serve out state’s rich hunting heritage — and keep yet another “firestorm” at bay.

The Commission’s latest draft proposals will be available online at fwp.mt.gov/regproposals. Public comment will be taken through Jan. 14 and can be submitted online at fwp.mt.gov/regproposals or by email to fwpwld@mt.gov. 

FWP is also planning to hold meetings around the state to discuss the draft hunting regulations. The commission will make a final decision on the 2022/2023 hunting regulations at its meeting in February.

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