As Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks tries to control elk numbers, hunters may get a longer rifle season this year. But many question whether a longer season with no additional access can make a dent in the population.
After three hours of debate Thursday, the FWP commission reluctantly voted to send an elk-hunting proposal out to 60 days' of public comment.
As frustration grows over elk management in some areas of the state, the proposal seeks to reduce landowner/hunter tensions by providing elk hunting outside the usual five-week season and surplus or “A7” licenses for antlerless elk in areas where populations are over FWP objectives.
Last year, FWP Director Jeff Hagener convened an internal FWP working group, which decided to push for greater use of these options, said Wildlife Management Chief Quentin Kujala.
“Whatever else might be taken from this exchange, these don’t represent a silver bullet. We think they stab at as much of that as this tool can. But there are many other things to think about, not the least of which is the Access Program, trying to get hunters more effectively to the elk. But that’s not a piece on the plate today,” Kujala said.
FWP needs landowners to participate in the Block Management Program, part of the Access Program which allows public hunters onto private land. But during recent legislative sessions, some landowners said they would not participate if certain bills didn't pass.
This year, one of those bills was Sen. Doug Kary’s (R-Billings) Senate Bill 245, which would have put more emphasis on post-season elk hunts. Under SB 245, the season would continue in until elk populations were below objective in a district but not later than Feb. 15.
Some hunters supported the bill because it provided more opportunity. But others were opposed because previous use of late-season hunts proved ineffective unless a majority of landowners in a district opened their land to hunting.
Unlike game-damage hunts, landowners don’t have to provide public access during late-season hunts.
Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed SB245, saying the commission can already require late-season hunts as necessary.
That was just one of the difficulties that commissioners found with the proposal.
Like Bullock, Commission Chair Dan Vermillion pointed out that the tools in the proposal are already available to the commission. The commission is allowed to extend the season in a number of districts.
Freshman commissioner Richard Kerstein of Scobey said landowners in the Missouri Breaks area, as in other parts of the state, have concluded that more permits won’t be able to control populations because elk have too many places to hide.
“It’s not an equal playing field. It’s not all public land where all hunters have access. So there are various refuges, either on private land bought out by people who don’t allow hunting or they move into pea fields and they move out by hunting season,” Kerstein said. “Increasing the number of licenses doesn’t seem to address their problem.”
Finally, Commissioner Matthew Tourtlotte of Billings questioned whether it was appropriate to make decisions based upon an elk-management plan and objective numbers that more than a decade old.
FWP managers develop game objectives based on how many animals each district can support environmentally and the human tolerance for a species in each district. The two don’t always correspond.
Tourtlotte said both factors have probably changed in the past 10 years, especially since biologists are finding more elk in southwestern Montana that carry the disease brucellosis.
“The proposal is being driven by the objectives,” Tourtlotte said. “I feel like I’m in a hamstrung position here. I’m going to leave this meeting today and have a ton of questions about why are we having this conversation now if we don’t even know what the tolerances are and if they’ve changed.”
Tourtlotte reminded Kujala that the commission raised the question of a new plan two years ago.
Kujala said the department doesn’t have the resources to do more than one management plan at a time. FWP is currently developing a new plan for mountain lions.
During public comment, some hunters urged the commission to reject the proposal, saying there were too many vague points, it would cost FWP more to manage a longer season, and late-hunts don’t do much to reduce population.
Landowners appealed to the commission to allow FWP to do more.
Rancher Ron Wich said he has been in the block management program for 40 years but it’s getting too frustrating.
“We don’t kill enough elk. The percentage of calf crop (this year) is tremendous, mainly because of the weather. The big thing FWP needs to deal with is this property owner that won’t let anybody hunt,” said. “If FWP doesn’t work with us, we’ll take care of it ourselves.”
Kary said a law passed in 2003 required all elk populations to be below objective by 2009.
However, the law did not provide FWP with additional authority to make that possible.
“I really encourage the commission to do something, even if you only do it for one season. You have landowners who are open right now. If there’s an about-face and nothing happens, you’re going to have to rebuild a whole lot of fence,” Kary said.
The public has until Aug. 3 to give the commission input on the proposal.
In the meantime, hunters can start signing up to participate in damage hunts starting Monday. The sign-up period goes until July 15.
Vermillion noted that damage hunts - late hunts on ranches that participate in block management - are sometimes ineffective because landowners have a limited list of hunters to call when elk are on their land. That’s especially so in more remote areas.
He suggested that the sign-up period should be open indefinitely to recruit more hunters. The idea may be pursued at a future meeting.