• Sat. Nov 26th, 2022

Public comment ‘storm’ prompts FWP to rethink elk management proposals


Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks backtracked on a controversial elk management strategy after a public response that FWP Director Henry “Hank” Worsech described as a “firestorm.”

Even after the ministry withdrew from the most controversial proposal it had planned to present to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, public commentators continued to raise concerns at the commission’s Dec. 14 meeting in Helena about a process they believe was rushed and favors the big landowners. and brings the state closer to the privatization of wildlife.

In response to public comments, the FWP decided not to go ahead with a measure that would have allowed hunters to purchase over-the-counter tags to hunt elk on private property in eight hunting districts while simultaneously reducing the number of tags available to hunters on public lands. . Worsech admitted to receiving heated comments over the past week, but defended the ministry’s approach, saying it wanted to try new strategies to reduce elk numbers in areas where they exceed population targets. by the ministry, especially in places where landowners are concerned about elk. eat the available forage. He said he asked the staff of the department to come up with proposals focused on biological goals as well as those focused on “the social point of view”.

“Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity – I wanted to look at something a little different,” Worsech told the panel.

“We… a lot of elk in these areas,” Worsech said. “It really started a firestorm and I take full responsibility for it.”

Worsech said he was motivated to propose the approach in part because of conversations with landowners frustrated with their inability to hunt on their own property. He said the public response in recent days had inspired him to form a 17-person committee representing stakeholders including the Montana Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Montana Stockgrowers Association to continue to address management issues. wild meat. He said this committee, which he received approval from Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte to form, will be tasked with finding ways to increase access opportunities for hunters and reduce elk populations, especially on private land.

Instead of the abandoned plan to reduce tags on public land and lift caps on private land tags, the commission heard testimony and ultimately came up with six proposals that will now be subject to a 30-day public comment period before. let the commission decide which, if all, to incorporate into state elk regulations from 2022 to 2023.

These six proposals are technical and lousy questions, but they share some common themes, namely how the panel will balance high elk populations, public hunting opportunities, and the concerns and desires of private landowners. (Although FWP and lawmakers have responded to comments from private landowners frustrated with elk eating forage on their property, thus decreasing the grass available for livestock, critics have pointed out that some of these landowners are shooting also a huge financial benefit from their ability to sell elk trophy hunts to equipped hunters.)

One of the six proposals confirmed by the commission would increase the number of elk tags available by 50% in eight districts where elk exceed the target by 200% or more. For example, such a district with 60 permits – which are awarded through an annual draw – would increase to 90 permits.

Another proposal would remove the archery license “900-20” which includes 22 hunting districts spread over regions four, five and seven. This license is currently awarded by lot. Hunting districts subject to the current 900-20 license would move to a different management regime under the new proposal. About half of these would move to general license areas, meaning hunters with statewide archery licenses would be eligible to hunt there, and the other half would switch to what’s called an unlimited license. There would be no cap on the number of unlimited licenses – or tags – available to hunters, but hunters who obtain them would be limited to hunting in those districts only during the dates specified in the license.

Another proposal titled “State-wide definition of moose license” would require hunters who obtain tags for specific hunting districts to hunt within those district boundaries during the validity of the license, rather than hunting. move around the state in the hopes of increasing their chances of success in other areas. (Under current regulations, hunters with a tag for a specific area can also hunt outside that area if they purchase a general tag in addition to the special district permit.)

A “Late Season Antlerless Elk” proposal would allow the commission to set late seasons for elk in districts that exceed population targets on private and certain public lands. This season could run until February 15.

Finally, two catch-all proposals were adopted at the December 14 meeting, allowing the commission to consider additional changes to elk management at a future meeting.

Several commentators, including Chris Marchion, an Anaconda Sportsmen Club board member, praised the commission and the department for addressing public concerns by retracting Worsech’s private land label proposal.

“I think the process is going to be a lot more constructive,” Marchion said. “I think we were on a wrong path, a path of confrontation.”

At least four of the roughly 40 people who testified in person or remotely on December 14 referred to the state’s elk management plan, which was last updated in 2005. A rewrite of that plan was launched last year when a citizens’ advisory committee released guiding principles. and a backgrounder on their efforts. Several commentators said the ministry should complete this plan update before introducing significant regulatory changes, and expressed skepticism about the validity of FWP’s elk population targets.

“I would really encourage the department to focus on the elk management plan first and get a comprehensive strategy and better consensus around the elk. [objectives] which many of my constituents believe to have been more or less arbitrarily affected, ”said Representative Tom France, D-Missoula, in a statement to the committee.

Representative Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, and Senator Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, also commented, as did United States House candidates Monica Tranel, a Democrat from Missoula, and Jack Ballard, a Democrat of Red Lodge. Both Tranel and Ballard touched on the role of landowners in the discussion.

Tranel said she viewed many of the proposed settlements as “taking the resource that the Montanais cherish and own, and give it to these billionaires who have a lot of private land.”

She referred to brothers Dan and Farris Wilks, among the state’s largest landowners, in her remarks. The Wilks brothers are participating in a landowner access agreement program on the N Bar ranch near Lewistown that allows them to guarantee eight bull elk tags – which often earns big money for equipped hunters – in exchange for opening up their lands to public hunters, eight of whom the Wilks chose to hunt either sex, and 16 others chosen by FWP who would be limited to elk. Critics have lambasted this program, describing it as an opportunity for private landowners to “sell” Montana’s wildlife through bull elk hunts and out of step with the “public trust doctrine” of wildlife management. to which Worsech declared to have subscribed at the beginning of the commission. Encounter. Supporters of the Landowner Access Agreement program, such as Commissioner Pat Tabor, founder of a Swan Valley outfitting company, said the program created “opportunities for people that they would never have. “.

Like many commentators, Ballard said the commission should focus on harvesting elk if it is serious about reducing the population. He also said he would like to see more emphasis on incentivizing landowners to open up their lands to public hunters, especially during the general season when hunters turnout is highest.

Other commentators have expressed a desire to learn more about the FWP biologists in the field rather than the heads of departments in Helena, and expressed skepticism about incorporating cultural preferences into game management.

“My suggestion would be to stick to quantifiable and consistent biological data, [since] the social sciences are always more confused than the biological sciences. Feelings change, as do tolerances, due to circumstances beyond control, ”said Stephan Weber in his remarks.

A handful of commentators have expressed support for the proposal to remove the 900-20 archery license. Bozeman outfitter Paul Ellis said the change could be attractive to landowners who do not shoot tags to rifle on their own land, but who may be eligible for a shooting tag. arc as part of the proposal. Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, said he supports moving from a capped beacon system to an unlimited one, which would be introduced in about 10 districts.

“Going from the limited to the unlimited is, I think, a very sustained and good concept,” he said.

Now that the commission has presented its six proposals for public comment, it is in a position to vote on changes to the elk regulations at its next meeting in February. The committee could decide to adopt some, all or none, and also has the option of voting on the changes not discussed at the December 14 meeting as part of the catch-all proposals put forward this week.

Montana Free Press