This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest that showcases a more personal side of Montana Free Press’ reporting.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks last week released a list of proposals from the 12-member citizen elk management advisory group, which was tasked with bringing “fresh eyes” to issues surrounding elk management. FWP staff evaluated each of the 15 proposals for insight on execution, funding requirements, and any conflicts — legal or otherwise — they might inspire if implemented.
One of the recommendations likely to garner controversy is titled “choose your weapon/season.” It aims to reduce crowding by shrinking the number of hunters in the field at any given time. If implemented, it would require hunters to decide to hunt during rifle season or archery season, but not both. FWP’s enforcement division noted that it’s “likely to be very unpopular with the public and may lead to additional ‘opportunistic’ type violations.”
Another recommendation likely to stir the pot, titled “we have to manage elk where they are not,” is intended to address lower populations of elk in northwest Montana by engaging in more aggressive predator management. It asks FWP to reduce populations of wolves and black bears by expanding the seasons in which they can be hunted and consider the use of activities like aerial hunting of wolves in areas where elk are under population objectives.
The group also recommended that FWP develop a cow-only tag for hunters pursuing their quarry on private land. It would be offered in districts where elk exceed population targets. FWP staff raised concerns that this could confuse hunters by running counter to department efforts to streamline and simplify regulations, and indicated that access to private property, not access to tags, is the problem that needs solving.
When Henry “Hank” Worsech took the helm of FWP, Gov. Greg Gianforte tasked him with finding a new approach to balancing landowner concerns with hunter opportunity. In the aftermath of Worsech’s attempt to shake up the status quo, the department has been thrust into a lawsuit while hunters organize themselves in anticipation of the 2023 legislative session.
A recommendation focusing on “damage hunts” would allow landowners to pull from a list of resident hunters they trust to quickly address forage-loss concerns. The group also recommended that FWP develop an educational course focused on landowner relations and hunter ethics to address some of the concerns landowners have expressed about opening their properties to the hunting public. After completing the course, participants would have expanded access to hunt on the property of willing landowners.
Proposals that are likely to spark minimal controversy include efforts to develop user-friendly data collection methods, create a landowner-liaison position to work with FWP, encourage collaboration between state and federal land managers, and establish localized elk working groups where possible.
Implementation of all 15 recommendations would require an additional 17.5 full-time-equivalent employees and $12.4 million in state special revenue in fiscal year 2024, and $9.7 million annually thereafter, as well as about $400,000 in federal special revenue each year. FWP staffers expect focused game damage tags to bring in about $55,000 in revenue each year.
More than three-quarters of the total price tag would go toward conducting the in-depth education course. In addition to online lessons, participants would be expected to complete a marksmanship and field training course component.
The department will accept comments on the group’s proposals through Oct. 14.