Thursday’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission meeting promises to be lively as commissioners take up the elk-shoulder season proposal among other things, and FWP may reveal its final decision on the game-damage rule.
Sportsmen are anticipating a struggle with a few landowners who are pushing FWP to give landowners more control over hunts on their land. Even though sportsmen fund most of FWP's budget, a few state legislators have tried to manipulate FWP rules in landowners' favor.
Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, sponsored a 2015 bill that would have mandated elk shoulder seasons. While it didn’t pass, FWP has moved forward with its own shoulder season proposal in hopes of avoiding similar threats in the 2017 Legislature.
On Thursday, the commissioners will consider a slightly modified version of that proposal after allowing extended public comment period that brought in almost 1,100 comments.
The comments indicate that sportsmen are vehemently opposed to allowing bull hunting during shoulder seasons, arguing that hunts should target cows elk if the objective is population control.
In response, FWP changed the focus of shoulder seasons to antlerless animals. However, it does not leave out the possibility of including bulls.
Bow hunters complained that an early rifle season would ruin their hunt, so the proposal limits early season hunts to private land and some adjacent public land as FWP deems necessary.
This could reduce the effectiveness of early seasons because hunts are more effective when hunters are widely distributed across a landscape so that elk have fewer havens.
But in its response to public comments, FWP said early seasons on private land could help push elk onto public land for at least the beginning of the regular season.
The big issue driving the extension of the regular season is elk population objective. In its 2005 elk management plan, FWP set population objectives for each district based upon ecological and sociological factors, namely landowner tolerance.
Some hunters argue that the objectives should be updated, maybe even increased, before adding more seasons. But FWP director Jeff Hagener said he’s been warned against adjusting objectives while state legislators are bringing pressure to bear on the department.
In the decade since the plan was written, elk populations in several districts have grown to exceed the objectives.
A primary reason is that some landowners either harbor elk on their land for outfitters or simply don’t want to allow public hunters to hunt on their land. As the populations have grown, the elk start overgrazing rangeland or they eat crops, which upsets landowners, especially those who have been gracious enough to allow public hunters on their land.
Hunters say that landowners who don’t allow hunting have not only been part of the problem but they also contribute to the elk problem on their neighbors’ lands.
Landowners argue that some hunters are rude and damage their roads, gates and fences. They’ve grown weary of five weeks or more of dealing with requests to hunt, and as fewer landowners allow hunting, the remaining landowners become inundated with requests.
Hunters’ groups want to help the landowners who are open to hunting but not those who bar public hunters in favor of paid hunts.
The shoulder hunt proposal tries to address that by requiring that enough elk are killed in the regular season to account for half of the year’s calves. FWP Wildlife Chief Quentin Kujala said that should encourage landowners to open their land so the district qualifies for the shoulder season.
But in its response to public comment, FWP acknowledged a “loohole”: a shoulder season could be approved regardless of harvest criteria.
In deference to group’s like the Devil’s Kitchen Working Group, FWP “recognizes the value of a diverse local working groups and respects season options they might collaboratively identify and support.”
When the commission approved the initial proposal in June, they did so with trepidation. But they wanted to allow the public to weigh in.
Now after four months and numerous meetings, their decision doesn’t appear to be any easier.
It didn’t help that their decision was complicated by the department’s push to change the game damage hunt rules at the same time.
The department didn’t want to wait for the commission process to run its course so the commissioners have no vote. But they’ve received hundreds of comments related to the rule because many hunters and landowners have confused or combined aspects of the game damage and shoulder season hunts.
Charles Aherns of Philipsburg said neither change was needed.
“We don’t need longer elk seasons. We need people to get their lazy asses off the machines and hunt,” Aherns wrote.
While some sportsmen supported shoulder seasons as an additional opportunity to hunt, most didn’t support the damage-hunt rule change. Those who did support it asked that the hunts be antlerless only.
The rest of the commenters who supported the rule change were landowners and landowner groups.
A big point of contention was allowing landowners to choose a proportion of those who could hunt on their land. Some hunters said landowners could sell the right to hunt while others complained it ruined the intent of the hunt roster.
During the commission’s Sept. 18 meeting, commissioner Gary Wolf asked Public/Private Land Coordinator Alan Charles if FWP staff had decided the proportion of hunters that would be chosen by landowners. Charles said the decision hadn’t been made yet.
Charles argued that landowners should have some say because local hunters were more reliable than those on the hunt roster.
The Montana Stock Grower’s Association missed the rule comment period but weighed in when it made comments on the shoulder season.
“MSGA did support the change that would allow landowners to choose up to 25 percent of the hunters. In our view, the hunters picked by the landowners have a higher success rate and require less management, which is a significant factor for the landowners,” wrote MSGA spokesman Jay Bodner.
No-shows are a problem, Charles said. But when asked, Charles was unable to say how many hunters hadn’t shown up when called for damage hunts.
Hunter Vito Quatraro said response time might improve if hunters were given more information about what was required to participate in a particular district, but FWP hasn’t provided that to date.
Wolf asked if hunters could indicate a preference for late or early season hunts.
“From a personal perspective, I don’t want an early season hunt,” Wolf said.
Charles said that could be a consideration.
But with so much still in the air, sportsmen are anxious about the rule’s final form.