FWP hastens rule changes for game damage hunts

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks managers say they want public input on some elk-hunting rule changes, but they held comments to a minimum at two poorly advertised meetings.

During a Wednesday night videoconference, FWP landowner/sportsmen coordinator Alan Charles explained a number of changes that FWP managers want to make to administrative rules pertaining to game damage hunts. A similar videoconference was held Tuesday night for different FWP regions.

The changes were prompted by a June Legislative audit of FWP’s game damage hunt program, which found 11 deficiencies. The auditors attributed much of the problem to a lack of consistency in following rules and procedures and an associated lack of oversight by superintendents.

Charles said the proposed rule changes would address some of the audit's recommendations.

A few changes were small but helped make rules more accurate, such as changing “management season” to “management hunt.”

But bigger implications lurked behind a few of the changes, raising concerns for public hunters in Regions 2 and 3.

They suggested that FWP was unnecessarily rushing the rule changes before taking the time to gather credible data and more clearly define important terms such as “sufficient public access” to qualify for damage hunts.

Bozeman hunter Vito Quatraro questioned why the rule changes weren't being brought before the FWP commission.

Charles said the commission had been informed of the changes, but FWP Director Jeff Hagener wanted the amendments to pass more quickly than a six-month commission process would allow. Hagener, who is also pushing the department to implement shoulder elk seasons, wants the rules adopted by Oct. 15.

“The director’s specific direction to me was ‘I don’t want to be delaying on implementation of key rules that can show responsiveness to some of the issues.’ In our corrective action plan, we identified Nov. 30, 2015, as the date by which the department would try to respond,” Charles said.

One proposed change would reduce the role of the hunt roster, which has been the sole source of hunters for use in a damage hunt since 2006. The new rule would allow the department to choose hunters from the roster, from those who respond to other advertised opportunities or from lists of names supplied by landowners.

Charles said roster hunters sometimes expected herds to be bunched around haystacks so they weren’t prepared to pursue elk. Hunters who live near a landowner could be more effective in terms of knowledge of the area, Charles said.

“Hunters view (the roster) as another way to get more opportunity if they don’t get their animal during the general season,” Charles said. “Some people who sign up (for distant districts) may not be able to respond as effectively for a situation that requires a rapid efficient response.”

Quatraro said FWP could solve that issue by asking roster hunters to indicate if they could respond within 24 hours. FWP could also do a better job educating hunters about the conditions they might encounter during a damage hunt.

"This isn't brain surgery," Quatraro said.

He then asked how FWP would ensure that landowners didn’t charge hunters for the opportunity to be included in their hunter lists.

Charles said nothing in the law would prevent that but he wasn’t aware of that happening now. Landowners who want game damage hunts are not allowed to charge for hunting on their land during the regular season.

Bozeman hunter Kathryn QuannaYahu said the rules were “a step toward privatization and continued abuses involving preferential treatment.”

Bozeman hunter Rob Gregiore asked what percentage of roster hunters didn’t show up to damage hunts. Charles said he didn’t know.

A big point of the audit was that FWP had no unified data system to track what landowners asked for damage hunts, whether they qualified for damage hunts and the results of the hunt. Much of the information was recorded in non-standardized spreadsheets, if it was recorded at all.

Quatraro asked why the proposed rule didn’t limit landowner-designated hunters to a percentage of the total hunters to be used.

He said Hagener had already violated the existing rule in November when the director said in an internal memo that landowners could choose 25 percent of the hunters. Even then, the audit found that some landowners in the Bitterroot had been allowed to choose 50 percent of the hunters.

“The way it’s written now, (landowners) can select 100 percent of the hunters,” Quatraro said.

Charles said FWP preferred to designate a specific number in policy where it could be changed more easily than in a rule.

Another proposed change would eliminate the roster sign-up period of June 15 to July 15. Instead, the department would announce when the sign-up period would be for each year.

Charles said the dates could be more flexible now that hunters can access the online licensing service. FWP just needed to close the sign-up by Aug. 15 in order to randomize the lists.

But Missoula hunter Tim Aldrich didn’t think such a change was needed.

“The June 15 to July 15 is something that’s recognized by many people. They key into fixed dates. Maybe it doesn’t have to be June 15 to July 15, but I’m resistant to having to announce annually when that period is going to be,” Aldrich said.

That’s about all Aldrich was able to say because moderator Kaedy Gangstad cut him off at the two-minute limit.

Both Aldrich and Quatraro voiced disappointment that public comment was so limited.

“A two-minute limit when you have four people in the audience is ludicrous,” Quatraro said.

Gangstand said the public could submit comments in writing.

Submit comments on the rules no later than Aug. 21 to fwpgamedamagearms@mt.gov.