The new elk shoulder seasons will be tested in a handful of pilot projects this winter, but the seasons are getting pushback from the very people they were supposed to help: landowners.
On Thursday, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks commissioners approved five hunting districts for a late elk season this year but rejected FWP’s recent inclusion of a sixth district partly because of opposition from landowners in the district.
FWP Big Game Chief John Vore tried to add the east side of HD 391, which includes the area southeast of Townsend and Canyon Ferry, to the list of areas where late elk seasons will be tried.
“This area is important because of its location concerning (HD) 446 and 452. Elk from those two districts move back and forth in there. We don’t want to have a harboring situation where elk could find protection in 391,” Vore said. “We have a landowner that has land in both 391 and 446 that we’ve been working with, that we want to be able to harvest elk in that area.”
Region 3 Wildlife Chief Howard Burt confirmed that the Galt Ranch is the landowner that wanted district 391 to be included in the shoulder seasons.
The second-largest landowner in Montana, the Galts own ranches near Martinsdale and Ingomar in addition to the Townsend ranch, where they offer mostly fee-based hunting. Errol Galt is a former FWP commissioner and county commissioner, and Wylie Galt is a state legislator.
One of the new requirements for shoulder seasons is that enough landowners must provide some public access to their land to allow hunters to kill the equivalent of half the year’s calf crop during the regular season.
In October, the commission gave initial approval to pilot projects in districts 410, 445, 446, 449 and 452 where landowners have requested them but refused to approve a season for 392 because few landowners there allow public hunting.
Commissioner Dan Vermillion suggested in October that FWP needed to work more with landowners in 392 to increase their participation before they could have a shoulder season. Now, it’s unlikely 392 will ever have one.
The commissioners received a petition from almost all the landowners in 391 and 392 saying they didn’t want shoulder seasons. That left only eight landowners on the east side wanting a late season, which didn’t seem to justify one, said commissioner Ron Tourtlotte.
“There’s a very prominent expression of landowner lack of participation in this,” Tourtlotte said. “My frustration is that in rushing to get this out, maybe the department did fail to communicate a message to the landowners.”
Probably more than any other districts, 391 and 392 experience the worst parts of the hunter vs. landowner struggle over elk.
A number of landowners in the lowlands between Canyon Ferry and the Big Belt Mountains, such as the G-T Ranch and the Hidden Hollow Hideway Ranch, either limit hunting to just friends and family or are outfitters that don’t allow public hunting.
State Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, outfits on the Hidden Hollow Hideaway and Galt ranches.
With little public hunting, elk herds in the area have grown over the past decade. Hundreds of elk that now move between the mountains and the water have learned they are safe on private land. That frustrates public hunters who can see the elk but are limited to hunting on small scattered pockets of public land and one or two block management areas.
In recent years, the situation has led to several “shootouts” where hunters wait for hours and then let loose with a volley of bullets when the elk finally set hoof on public land. It’s exacerbated by a few landowners, also frustrated, who take it upon themselves to try to police hunters, a role they don’t have the authority to fill.
Both sides react strongly, neither is without fault, but it is the landowner that retains the power. Condemned for their unethical behavior, hunters may have valid arguments against landowner actions, but they are ignored.
Such is the maelstrom that can result from too many elk, too many hunters and too little access.
During public comment, G-T Ranch manager Jeff Brozovich said he circulated the petition among the landowners in 392 and 391 and complained about hunters engaging in shootouts.
“We don’t support shoulder seasons. We will not grant access or participate in the proposed program, “Brozovich said. “We’ve already got huge problems with the people that have tags in that area. You can’t throw this on us.”
Owned by East Coast Humvee dealer Dave Greytak, the G-T Ranch covers a large part of the elk route from the mountains to Canyon Ferry. Hunters say and Brozovich admits that he pursues the hunters who wait for the elk, driving after them and taking pictures. Hunters call it harassment; Brozovich calls it documentation. Hunters have accused Brozovich of herding elk onto his land, just as he has accused them of herding elk onto public land.
After last year’s shootouts, FWP met with landowners and hunters. Possibly as a result, this is the first year Brozovich approved a management hunt on the G-T Ranch. Taking full credit for its success, he said landowners preferred management hunts.
“It’s so successful that we didn’t end it. Other than us, only a couple cows were taken during that management hunt - we took 34. And since then, we’ve taken several more,” Brozovich said.
Wanting to avoid more shootouts, landowners would pull out of block management and the G-T Ranch would eliminate public access if FWP established a shoulder season, Brozovich said.
With that, Vermillion asked if the Galt Ranch would qualify for damage or management hunts in place of a shoulder season.
Receiving a yes, the commission voted against a shoulder season in 391. The other five district projects were approved.
“This shows it shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter approach. Just because we passed the guidelines doesn’t mean it’s a good situation for everybody. Hopefully, the department continues to use all tools that are available to it,” Tourtlotte said. “I think the comments were illuminating in that maybe there was a little bit of haste in going forward with this program.”