| December 23, 2021 12:00 AM
I am always amused by citizens that say all wildlife management should be science based. That is simply not the reality in today’s highly charged political landscape. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. The current elk management controversy in Montana is a prime example.
First, some background on how we got here. For most of the last 17 years, the Democrats controlled the governor’s office. The governor appoints the Director of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. He also appointed members of the Fish and Wildlife Commission. It is those folks that set state wildlife policy and management. During this period, the historic Montana wildlife management emphasis on big game species such as deer and elk were changed in favor of non-game wildlife management for species such as prairie dogs, bats and endangered species such as grizzly bears and Canadian lynx. This wildlife management trend is not unique to Montana, but was occurring in many other states, especially in the Democratic controlled states on the east and west coasts.
All that changed in the fall of 2020 when Montana elected a strong Republican legislature and new republican governor. Those newly elected officials felt they had a public mandate to go back to more traditional Montana wildlife management values. The 2021 Legislature passed new wildlife legislation such as broadening wolf hunting and trapping. Many hunters feel wolves threaten Montana’s deer and elk herds. These new laws were signed into law by our Republican governor and implemented by the Republican appointed FWP director and commission. Many of these new laws weren’t really brand new, but had been passed by previous republican legislators, and then vetoed by former Democratic governors. Clearly, the Republicans took charge.
Montana’s statewide elk management plan is over 15 years old and outdated. In that plan, the state is divided into dozens of elk management units. Each elk management unit has a desired elk population target. That target recognizes the quality of the elk habit and the tolerance of private landowners for accommodating elk herds on their land. Elk eat the same food that ranchers and farmers feed their cattle. Many of those great elk hunting districts are located in Central Montana. They include a mix of public and private land. Often, private landowners control the legal access to public lands. Public lands that are legally accessible receive so much public hunting pressure that elk are soon driven onto adjacent private land not open to the public.
According to the Montana Constitution, all wildlife belongs to the public. Even if an elk is born and lives its entire life on private land, the landowner does not own the elk. Since the elk on private land are owned by the public, the landowner has no right to kill that elk without state approval, usually a state issued license or permit.
Most private landowners do not want unsupervised armed public hunters wandering around their ranches. Besides interfering with ranch operations, hunters bring in weed seeds on the underside of their trucks and 4-wheelers. Eradicating those weeds is expensive. The democratic wildlife administrations have been reluctant to issue special elk permits for just landowners and their friends and family. Their view is that all members of the hunting public should have equal access to the public elk. But the state has no legal authority is permit public hunting on private land without the landowner’s permission. So, lots of excess elk go unharvested.
Private ranch owners recognized that elk, especially big bull elk are valuable. One ranch I hunted this fall was only open to guided hunters. If the hunter killed a bull, the rancher received a minimum $3,000 payment and an even larger payment if the bull was a really big. So big bull elk are very valuable.
Many ranchers have decided to lease their ranches to commercial outfitters because outfitters and guides managed the hunting on their ranches and pay them very well for that privilege. Outfitters charge their clients thousands of dollars for a good bull elk hunt. Those guide fees are beyond the economic reach of many Montana hunters. Guided hunters, many from out-of-state, do not want to shoot cow elk or small bulls. Guided out-of-state hunters bring a lot of new money to Montana. They are good for Montana’s economy. If you want to really reduce an elk herd, you need to shoot cows. Out-of-state hunters do not hire guides to shoot cow elk. So, elk populations have built up to several times the goal in many central Montana elk management units. In recent years, FWP has implemented both early season and late season elk hunts to reduce elk populations. These new hunts have had only limited success in reducing herd size.
In order to reduce excess elk herds, the new Republican elk management leadership proposed to issue substantial numbers elk hunting permits to large wealthy landowners. Many of those new proposals make good business sense, especially if large landowners are allowed to sell those permits to out-of-state hunters.
But hundreds of Montana hunters have risen up and not just said no, but hell no! These are public elk and all Montana elk hunters should have equal access to these elk regardless of their economic status. This firestorm of opposition caused wildlife officials to modify the new elk hunting proposals.
The public now has a chance, until mid-January, to comment on the current proposed changes. Go online to the FWP website to review these proposed changes and submit your comments. But the reality is that 99% of Montana hunters will not comment, so the final decision will be made based on comments from a vocal minority. If you don’t comment, you have no basis to complain later on.