Legislative committee OK's damage-hunt rule changes

A legislative committee approved changes to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Park’s damage-hunt rule, but some legislators echoed the public’s confusion over the difference between damage hunts and the new shoulder seasons.

On Monday, the Environmental Quality Council heard FWP Public-Private Lands Coordinator Alan Charles summarize proposed changes to the damage-hunt rule and additional revisions made in response to public comment.

In September, after a June legislative audit found several deficiencies in the game-damage hunt program, FWP rushed the rule changes through a public comment process, bypassing the FWP commission.

Adding clarification to the originally proposed changes, Charles said FWP could request a list of hunters from landowners “in addition” to selecting hunters from FWP’s hunt roster. If the landowner provides a list, no more than 25 percent of hunters in a damage hunt can come from the landowner’s list.

The landowner’s list would not be used if bulls were to be harvested in a damage hunt.

Finally, hunters won’t have to surrender their unused elk licenses to get a supplemental license for a damage hunt.

“There was concern that the department would only use the list of names from landowners. So we tried to be clear that we would use these in addition to hunters from the hunt roster and only if it would help achieve the objectives of the hunt,” Charles said.

Additional comments recently sent to the EQC prompted Charles to further clarify that the Wildlife Information System database automatically selects hunters from the hunt roster first, and then hunters would be selected from the landowner’s list.

Charles gave the example that if five hunters were needed, four would be chosen from the hunter roster and then one would be chosen from a landowner’s list.

A letter would notify all five hunters at the same time, Charles said.

On Monday, a few committee members asked whether landowners could refuse access to particular hunters if they’d had trouble with the hunters before. But none opposed the changes until Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, spoke up, eventually saying he would object to the rule.

But as White posed his question, he addressed mainly FWP’s recently approved shoulder-season program and not the damage-hunt rule. The FWP commission approved guidelines for shoulder seasons in October.

White said he opposed the damage-hunt rule because it required landowners to provide “reasonable access” to public hunters to qualify. He then cited a Nov. 13 Property and Environmental Research Center article that said “shoulder seasons are a blanket attempt to force landowners to open their private land to free public land during the general season.”

“I’ve been contacted by several landowners who think this is on the borderline of extortion by the department,” White said. “Is it the department’s intention to force landowners to open their land to public hunting in order to receive the benefits of this? And how many districts does this shoulder season apply to? Is it true you’re looking at only six districts?”

Charles assured White that nothing in the damage-hunt rule forces landowners to open their land.

Chairman Sen. Gene Vuckovich, D-Anaconda, refuse to allow White to question the shoulder-season program further because it was off-topic.

White went on to say that the game damage rule didn’t reflect the intent of the legislature to bring the elk population down. The damage hunt program was created in 2005 after the Legislature passed a 2003 law requiring FWP to keep elk populations below district objectives. The requirement for landowners to allow some public hunting was part of the original law.

“Even though this was in a prior rule-making, I have a problem with the landowner being forced to allow public hunting,” White said.

Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek, agreed with White that the damage-hunt rule could be about forcing access. He didn’t object to the rule but suggested that the rule could be rewritten during the next legislature.

“’Reasonable access’ has never been defined and probably won’t be in our lifetime,” Ripley said. “But I think (damage hunts) are the only game in town, and it’s an opportunity to maybe meet halfway.”

Sen. John Brendan, R-Scobey, a regular critic of FWP programs, was absent and so didn’t weigh in on the changes.

Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, said the rule allows a landowner to keep his land closed to public hunters but also allows landowners to benefit from opening their land.

“The action I think the committee should take is go forth and do good work,” Keane said,

Kerry didn’t make a motion to object to the rule. The EQC can only vote to object or take no action and allow rules to go forward.

The EQC asked Charles to return in January with a report detailing how letters announcing each damage hunt were sent out to hunters and how many hunters didn’t show up when requested.