New blood, ideas needed for Private Lands/Public Wildlife Council

Managing wildlife is challenging when animals roam onto land where biologists cannot follow. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks increasingly finds itself in that situation when dealing with wildlife and private property.

Often, the best way to find workable solutions is to bring the interested parties to the table. So Gov. Steve Bullock is seeking landowners, hunters, anglers, outfitters and others interested in wildlife issues who would accept a 2-year appointment to the Private Lands/Public Wildlife Council.

By law, FWP has limited options for controlling wildlife if landowners don't allow at least some public hunting on their property. Still, FWP employees often find themselves in the difficult position of trying to limit property damage - caused mostly by elk and deer - on ranches where the public isn't allowed to hunt.

The problem is that elk learn to cluster on ranches where they are safe from hunting and can cause more damage. After the hunting season ends, elk sometimes move to fields belonging to landowners who do allow hunting, negating the benefit of cooperating with FWP.

 Wardens and biologists struggle to develop cooperation between neighbors as elk move from one property to another. If the damage isn't controlled, some landowners appeal to their legislators who sometimes respond by voting to cut the agency's budget.

Meanwhile, sportsmen are limited to hunting on public land or isolated chunks of private property open to the public through the block management program. Sometimes, hunters' frustration builds as they can see but are unable to pursue herds harboring on adjacent private property.

It wasn't as big a problem four or five decades ago, when Montana had fewer people and more properties were working ranches owned by Montanans who also tended to be hunters. Outfitting wasn't as established because it wasn't as lucrative. But there were also fewer elk. Meanwhile, landowners report that hunters have become less courteous and ethical as a group.

Now with more landowners refusing to allow hunting on their land or opening it only to outfitters, it's a thorny problem. So the 18-member council meets several times during its two-year tenure to try to reach consensus and settle on recommendations. The focus is usually on the block management program but the council can explore other suggestions and also deals with fishing access issues.

The most recent council agreed on four goals and made eight recommendations in August 2014 on how those goals might be met. The goals were:

  •  maximize access to public lands while respecting private property rights,
  • improve communications between FWP and the various groups,
  • increase public access to private property by building relationships, and
  • improve hunter compliance and reward good behavior.

It took compromise to come up with recommendations all 18 members could support.  So former PLPW chairman Joe Perry said he's somewhat disappointed that the 2015 Legislature and FWP haven't acted on some of the recommendations.

So far, the only course of action FWP is pursuing is a possible return to a policy of allowing elk hunting for a few weeks outside the regular five-week season in districts with too many elk. Recent legislation tried but failed to mandate similar seasons. But a longer season may have little effect because it doesn't get hunters into property where the elk hide.

Perry said the new group of PLPW council members will probably look at the effectiveness of elk shoulder seasons, but not before the FWP commission has to come to its decision on whether to allow them this fall.

"Something's gotta come out of this. You can't not have a solution. But the solution has got to deal with the problem, not just be a solution," Perry said.

Those interested in participating on the council should submit an application to FWP by July 17. Application forms and instructions are available here.