A coalition of hunters, landowners, outfitters and policymakers unveiled a suite of hunting-centric legislative proposals Tuesday in Helena during an event dubbed “Elk Camp at the Capitol” that drew more than 100 participants.

The event was organized by the Montana Citizens’ Elk Management Coalition, a group that supports “equitable and sustainable” wildlife management, and the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, a not-for-profit representing the interests of outfitters. 

Gov. Greg Gianforte appealed to a shared love of hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation in his opening remarks before the camouflage- and blaze orange-adorned crowd, describing it as “part of our identity as Montanans.”

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Elk management in the crosshairs

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.

To cheers from the crowd,Gianforte lauded two recent Montana Land Board decisions that expand state-managed wildlife areas. He also highlighted Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ work to map “access deserts” — stretches of navigable rivers lacking boat ramps and campgrounds. That work, he said, was inspired by FWP’s work over the past two years to expand public access along the Lower Yellowstone River Corridor.

Other speakers at the event included former Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Pat Byorth, MOGA president Dusty Crary, and two sitting lawmakers — Sen. Jeff Welborn, R-Dillon, and Rep. Tom France, D-Missoula.

Though the speakers emphasized areas of consensus, each made glancing references to the politically charged sticking points that led to the formation of the Citizens’ Elk Management Coalition in 2021. That group includes large and small conservation, sporting and public access organizations calling for equitable hunting opportunities, science-based management and transparency and accountability in the making of policy.

Crary, who runs a ranch and outfitting business in Dupuyer, said he doesn’t think taking the politics out of the discussion is a realistic goal, but added that interested parties have found a good place to start.

“We don’t have to agree on everything all of the time, because we won’t,” Crary said, “[but] if you look at those landowners and you go, ‘What you need is important to me, what you need matters to me,’ that’s how we’ll go forward. We don’t always have to agree, but right now, this consensus package of bills is a great place to start.”

The proposals unveiled at the event include an expansion of the payment cap for landowners participating in Block Management, which is cruising through the Legislature; stricter penalties for members of the public who trespass and for landowners who block legal hunter access; and tweaks to landowner preference licenses and nonresident antlerless deer tags. The most advanced of those proposals is the expansion of Block Management, which would double the current annual payment cap available to landowners who open their properties to public hunters from $25,000 to $50,000.

The coalition has called for lawmakers to use $200 million of the state’s billion-dollar budget surplus to create a Montana Legacy Trust, a fund to support the restoration and improvement of public and private lands with an eye toward habitat preservation and stewardship. Welborn described it as a “tremendous opportunity” that is likely to “get a shot at a fair hearing.”

Interest earned off the initial investment could fund wildlife migration corridor conservation, weed abatement and stream restoration projects that would benefit landowners, outfitters, sportsmen and the businesses they support, Welborn said.

Ben Lamb, campaign manager with the Citizens’ Elk Management Coalition, said his group is trying to work through the best approach to introduce legislation establishing the Montana Legacy Trust and aims to have a sponsor lined up within the next two weeks.

Funding for Habitat Montana, a three-decades-old program that authorizes FWP to purchase property and conservation easements to protect key wildlife habitat, also found its way into the conversation. 

Gianforte released a draft budget in November that conservation and recreational advocates have argued short-changed funding for the Legislature-established Montana Outdoor Fund, which is supported with recreational marijuana taxes.

“The governor’s budget, unfortunately, took money dedicated to Habitat Montana through the marijuana initiative and rerouted it,” France said. “We think that’s going to be one of the places where Democrats, and I hope many Republicans, are saying, ‘That was the wrong choice, governor.’ With a $1.8 billion surplus, we have the resources to fund many, many programs.”

Gianforte has defended his budget proposal, arguing that public land funding is in good shape and other government programming needs a boost.

“After hearing from FWP that its public lands funding is healthy and bountiful, the governor proposes marijuana tax revenue be used to support Montana veterans and their spouses, strengthen treatment services, and boost law enforcement to make our communities safer and stronger,” a Gianforte spokesperson told the Missoula Current in November.

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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...