Cascade-area cattle and sheep producer Chase Hibbard said he remembers attending Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission meetings in the 1980s, when it felt like the only way to influence elk regulations was to “show up with the most people, talk the loudest and longest, and hope that something would change.”

Hibbard, a fourth-generation rancher, said that didn’t seem right to him, particularly given how important elk management is to so many people in terms of both emotional weight and financial repercussions. Hibbard, who served four terms in the Montana Legislature as a Republican in the 1990s, thought it might be better to engage different stakeholders in search of a shared solution that didn’t involve screaming matches at commission meetings. That ambition led to the creation in 1989 of the Devil’s Kitchen Working Group, which drew its name from a rugged and remote piece of country in the Big Belt Mountains.

Three other large landowners in the area signed on with the effort, along with a number of smaller landowners and a couple of elk hunting outfitters. Local sporting groups took notice, as did representatives from state and federal government agencies like Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Bureau of Land Management. Montana Land Reliance, a nonprofit that partners with landowners to put properties into conservation easements, made managing director Bill Long available to facilitate and organize the group’s discussions.

Initially the Devil’s Kitchen Working Group met as frequently as twice a month. Everyone shared what they valued about the landscape and elk, and discussed what they wanted the group to accomplish. “We spent an inordinate amount of time developing common goals,” Hibbard said.

Cattle and sheep rancher Chase Hibbard worked with other central Montana stakeholders to launch the Devil’s Kitchen Working Group in 1989 in order to develop a collaborative elk managment solution for the area. Credit: Courtesy of Chase Hibbard.

They ended up with a handful of goals they hoped to accomplish: bring elk numbers down closer to FWP population targets, reduce the pressure on landowners to manage hunters, secure opportunities for public hunters to pursue both bull and cow elk, maintain existing outfitting operations on private land, and encourage more age diversity in the bull elk population. (The area had become so popular with hunters pursuing bull elk that it was rare for bulls to reach their second birthday.)

The group landed on a unique hybrid season to integrate those goals and took it to the commission, which shot down their proposal twice. “The third time around, they sat up and took notice [that] this isn’t just a bunch of whackos,” Hibbard said. “They accepted our proposal hook, line and sinker.”

Wildlife managers incorporated those recommendations into state hunting regulations in 1994 and the basic framework of the group’s vision has remained virtually unchanged since. Past and present working group members say that longevity is a testament to the trust they developed — and the compromises they committed to — over many thoughtful conversations and shared meals at the Cascade United Methodist Church. Onlookers noting the escalating tension surrounding statewide elk management, which boiled over into a lawsuit earlier this year, wonder if the Devil’s Kitchen Working Group stumbled on something that should be replicated in other areas where landowners, hunters, outfitters and FWP staff are at loggerheads over elk management.

In hunting district 445, which is primarily privately owned, landowners have lots of discretion about who can hunt on their property during archery season and the first two weeks of rifle season. With the appropriate tags, landowners can hunt their own property, invite friends or family members to hunt, or make arrangements with outfitters — an effort to recognize landowner contributions to elk habitat and to sustain existing outfitting operations. For the last three weeks of rifle season, a limited number of either-sex permits — 35 this year — are awarded based on a lottery system. Both resident and nonresident hunters have the opportunity to enter a drawing for those either-sex elk permits, most of which are used for bull elk. The large landowners coordinate scheduling for that three-week period so all permit-holders have the opportunity to hunt the unit. That part of the framework aims to support public hunting opportunity — which Hibbard calls “probably the best tool we have” to bring high elk numbers down — without adding so many hunters onto the landscape that bull elk fail to reach maturity. Hunters with a valid tag can hunt cow elk on Unit 445 throughout the season with landowner permission.

The other unit in the Devil’s Kitchen area, 455, is anchored by the Beartooth Wildlife Management Area, a haven for wildlife east of the Missouri River with grassy rolling hills interspersed with sagebrush, ponderosa pine and three streams that run nearly year-round. FWP manages the Beartooth WMA to provide elk and other wildlife, including bighorn sheep, with winter range and to create some public hunting opportunity, but not so much that elk stream onto neighboring ranches seeking refuge from hunters. That unit stays open to resident and nonresident hunting through the archery and rifle season, but permits are capped with a lottery system. Between permits that can be used during both the archery and rifle seasons and those that are good for archery season only, about 150 either-sex permits are available this year, most of which will be used for bull elk. Another 250 cow elk permits are also available by lottery.

ON LUNCH AND RUBIK’S CUBES

Helena Valley resident David Cole learned about the Devil’s Kitchen Working Group from an FWP biologist who asked him to attend a couple of meetings. He ended up participating in the group for about 20 years.

At the time the working group launched, Cole was president of the Prickly Pear Sportsmen’s Association and vice chair of the Public Land/Private Wildlife Advisory Committee, which he’d’ been appointed to by then-Gov. Marc Racicot. Avid horseback hunters, David and his wife, Connie, favored the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness Area located in hunting district 455. (About a decade ago, Cole stopped participating in the group when injuries and wildfire- and logging-spurred habitat changes drove him, now 76 years old, to change his hunting habits.)

Cole said he attributes the group’s success to “all the magic of human beings interacting” and the spirit of compromise and consensus that it embraced. 

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“It was not ‘do you like it,’ but ‘can you live with it,’” he said. “That helped us get over a lot of hurdles.” He also said the meetings’ midday break for lunch, when different groups take turns preparing and serving a meal and everyone sits down to discuss subjects unrelated to elk management, has helped to “keep things going” over the years. 

Not that it was easy. Cole said finding a workable framework was like solving a Rubik’s cube, given the many variables and goals involved. He also caught heat from public land hunters who heard about the group second-hand. Hunters outside of the process were skeptical that landowners would hold up their end of the deal, he said. Prominent voices in the public land access community, including Montana conservation giant Jim Posewitz, expressed concern that the state was moving toward a wildlife privatization model by giving landowners so much say in the management of elk for the first two weeks of rifle season. Some hunters also worried that the landowners would harvest too many bull elk during that period or skimp on providing access to their properties.

But two things helped soften that skepticism, Cole said: a track record that demonstrated the group was meeting its goals, and the expansion of block management, which added more structure and oversight to the public hunting piece of the puzzle.

FWP biologist Jake Doggett, who co-manages the Beartooth Wildlife Management Area, has been participating in the group since 2019. He said up to 40 people attend the thrice-annual meetings, depending on the agenda and timing, and landowners and agency personnel alike are proud of what they’ve built in the Devil’s Kitchen.

“While it may not look like Devil’s Kitchen, there’s always opportunities for people to sit down and have some sort of conversation. … It’s all about trust.”

 Retired Montana Land Reliance managing director Bill Long

Doggett’s experience has underscored the benefit of landowner outreach. “The more coffee that we can drink at the kitchen table with the landowner, the better,” he said, adding that he attributes the group’s success to strong communication between this particular collection of landowners and their shared concerns and goals.

These collaboratives require participation from all stakeholders to work well, he added. “Otherwise the oomph isn’t there.” 

The Citizen’s Elk Management Advisory Group, an effort FWP assembled after a suite of controversial new regulations inspired a “firestorm” of public comment, has recommended an expansion of working groups like Devil’s Kitchen. In comments about the proposal, FWP’s wildlife division notes that such working groups need landowner buy-in to be effective, and agency-led efforts are likely to fall flat.

Long, who continues to facilitate the group’s meetings even after his retirement from Montana Land Reliance in 2009, said he’s hopeful that other groups can find a piece of the “alchemy” that’s developed at the Cascade United Methodist Church over the past three and a half decades. 

“It’s all about trust,” he said. “While it may not look like Devil’s Kitchen, there’s always opportunities for people to sit down and have some sort of conversation.”

ONGOING CHALLENGES

Hibbard says that while the group has proven very successful by some metrics — bull elk in the region now have much better odds of dying of old age, for example — management challenges continue to evolve.

Even with an increase in cow elk harvests, which can help bring the overall population down, and the introduction of shoulder seasons to discourage elk from feasting on alfalfa fields, the ungulates have demonstrated a knack for intuiting when and where they’ll be exposed to a hunter’s scope. 

“They’re more wary, they’re in bigger bunches and they’re a lot harder to hunt,” Hibbard said. A herd of 800 will stand out of range on a hillside until shooting light runs out and dark descends. Then they’ll file in behind the hunter, eyeing Sieben Live Stock Company’s newly seeded alfalfa fields, he said. “You’ve got to respect it. They’re intelligent animals when it comes to self-survival.”

And despite the group’s best efforts, the overall elk numbers have been growing for reasons Hibbard said he doesn’t totally understand, but attributes at least partially to the high-quality habitat they’re finding in Devil’s Kitchen. Doggett said FWP’s elk objective, i.e., population target, for hunting districts 445 and 455 is 2,200 animals. This past March, FWP counted 4,742 elk between the two units. He said it can be tough country to hunt, and the fact that elk aren’t afraid to move in response to hunting pressure compounds that difficulty. Radio collar data shows that it’s not unusual for elk to move 15 or 20 miles in a 48-hour period, he said.

Despite those challenges, Doggett said the working group has fostered something that’s worth replicating: an opportunity for landowners and hunters to have a “well-rounded discussion.” 

The group’s cooperative and uncommon approach was also recognized in a 2008 document about the Beartooth Wildlife Management Area. FWP Region 4 Wildlife Manager Cory Loecker described the effort as “unique in the annals of Montana’s conservation history.”

“It is the role of hunters as conservationists to work together along with land and wildlife agencies to discourage privatization and commercialization of wildlife by seeking innovative and viable solutions for landowners that will safeguard wildlife habitat and public access to private lands,” he wrote. “Devil’s Kitchen Management Team blazes the trail into the future.

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Amanda EggertEnvironmental Reporter

Amanda Eggert studied print journalism at the University of Montana. Prior to becoming a full-time journalist, Amanda spent four years working with the Forest Service as a wildland firefighter. After leaving the Forest Service in 2014, Amanda worked for Outside magazine as an editorial fellow before joining Outlaw Partners’ staff to lead coverage for Explore Big Sky newspaper and contribute writing and editing to Explore Yellowstone and Mountain Outlaw magazines. Prior to joining Montana Free Press’ staff in 2021 Amanda was a freelance writer, researcher and interviewer. In addition to writing...