Hunters question landowner list in Townsend-area management hunt

Thanks to increased effort this year from wardens and landowners, elk hunting east of Canyon Ferry was a little less chaotic. But some hunters questioned whether one landowner is playing loose with the rules.

Tempers flared often in 2014 after limited access to hundreds of elk in Hunting District 392 east of Canyon Ferry resulted in shootouts involving dozens of hunters and repeated hunter-landowner conflicts. This year, landowners and Fish, Wildlife & Parks worked to ease the situation by handling the hunt differently.

FWP wardens were more responsive during the season, so fewer situations got out of hand, said G-T Ranch manager Jeff Brozovich. A few shootouts still occurred, but Brozovich was relieved that the season went better than last year.

Meanwhile, a few landowners who hadn’t allowed public hunting before, including Brozovich, opened their ranches to public hunters, which qualified them for help with damage or management hunts.

To receive a damage hunt, landowners are required by law to provide some level of public access during the regular season. Management hunts are basically damage hunts that deal with a large number of animals, often on multiple properties.

In August, FWP Region 3 Supervisor Sam Sheppard approved an early seven-week management hunt on five adjacent ranches around White’s Gulch east of Canyon Ferry. Hunters from the FWP hunt roster and landowner lists were given seven days each to hunt on a particular ranch, including the G-T Ranch and the 71 Ranch.

Rep. Kelly Flynn, R-Townsend, outfits elk hunts and manages hunting on the 71 Ranch for former FWP commissioner Errol Galt. The Galt family is the second-largest private landowner in Montana behind the Wilks brothers.

Both Flynn and Brozovich said the management hunt took some work but went fairly smoothly. When combined with the regular season, Flynn estimated that about 250 elk were harvested. But neither want a late management hunt or shoulder season after putting in so much work already.

“We have to evaluate what we did. It did cost us some good hunting. The larger bulls leave,” Brozovich said. “But we’re open minded to it. We want to talk with everybody, have some meetings and maybe come up with a plan for next year.”

As outlined in the new FWP damage-hunt rule, 75 percent of the 26 hunters were selected from the hunt roster and the remainder came from lists submitted by the five landowners.

But some hunters said the landowner-list "loophole" in the damage-hunt rule was playing out in White’s Gulch: They claimed one man was selling the opportunity to be included in a landowner list.

For at least the past few hunting seasons, Flynn has sold the opportunity to hunt on a section of the 71 Ranch to up to 10 hunters as part of a “hunt club.” Each hunter who pays $500 can bring two other people to hunt on more than 6,000 acres but only on certain days of the week during the regular season.

Flynn said the money goes toward weed management and repairs on the ranch.

“Block management payments haven’t kept up with inflation, which is why I’ve been trying (in the Legislature) to find other funding for block management. But if you don’t have additional money, the other way you do it is like we do with this hunting club,” Flynn said. “It’s like having private block management.”

However, rumors were flying through the local hunting community that Flynn was providing hunt-club members with added value by putting them on his landowner list for the 71 Ranch.

To verify that, MontanaOTG requested from FWP both the hunt roster and the names of hunters submitted by landowners who participated in the HD392 management hunt. The names were compared with those hunters known to be in the hunt club.

A number of hunt-club members were selected for the management hunt because they'd signed up for the FWP hunt roster. But one hunt-club member was allowed to participate because Flynn had put him on the landowner list.

Flynn isn’t charging hunters to be included on his landowner list, but some public hunters argued that including hunt-club members comes close to selling opportunity. This fall when the new damage-hunt rules were proposed, hunters repeatedly asked FWP to guard against a “loophole” where landowners might include hunters on their list for a fee.

Flynn pointed out that landowners have the flexibility to submit whomever they want on their list.

“I had no family on it.  There were several people who work for me on it but they did not get drawn. There were several from the hunting club. I know at least one was drawn at one point,” Flynn said. “To say he’s a friend – he isn’t a friend. They’re just people, they asked if they could go on the list. I didn’t have any family or friends to add so they got to get on the list.”

Former FWP commissioner Ron Moody verified that Flynn hadn’t violated the rules in nominating hunters who were paying Flynn to hunt on the 71 Ranch. But as demonstrated by the June Legislative audit, the game-damage rules have some problems.

“Our game-damage regulations are so arcane and convoluted with so many interwoven elements to them that (people) could just about justify anything and make some claim of legitimacy,” Moody said.