Legislators consider objection to damage hunt rule

A legislative committee may have the final say on whether Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks changes its rule related to game damage hunts.

After hearing an hour’s worth of public comment during Thursday’s Environmental Quality Council hearing, legislators decided they wanted to approve any changes to the game-damage hunt rule. FWP Director Jeff Hagener said FWP would finalize the game damage rule by mid-November, but the EQC doesn't meet again until January and that would be too late to object. So the committee voted to schedule a conference call two weeks before the rule would go into effect. If the committee objects to the changes, it would postpone implementation of the rule for six months.

“We've talked about objecting to the rules, and this is so complicated. I think that the department is doing everything they can, and I don’t defend the department very often. I'm just trying to get to where we can Iet the process work but still stay involved,” said Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek.

Earlier, Legislative researcher Hope Stockwell had told the committee about the June Legislative audit that found almost a dozen problems with FWP’s management of game damage hunts. Most of the problems dealt with a lack of consistency and record-keeping, but FWP is moving forward with changing its rule dealing with makeup of the hunt roster, allowing landowners to choose some of the hunters.

Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, asked Hagener if it wouldn’t be better to get proper procedures and computerized tracking in place before jumping on the rule change. Hagener said FWP would have a database system up and running by the end of November, the end of the regular hunting season.

Former FWP biologist Gayle Joslin, who dealt with elk conflicts around Helena for 20 years, said FWP should have more oversight of the game damage process rather than giving it to landowners.

“FWP initially made no provision to limit the number of hunters coming from the owner-generated lists. Montana’s wildlife is stewarded as a public trust. Exclusive use of landowner-generated lists would be a breach of that responsibility,” Joslin said. “Use of (such lists) comes perilously close to privatization of wildlife or at least the sanctioning of exclusive private hunting.”

Joslin also said that FWP hasn’t weighed in on revisions of Forest Service plans to limit the number of roads allowed and preserve vegetative cover in prime elk habitat on public land. That is just one of the things that contributes to elk moving down and damaging private land, Joslin said.

Other commenters said outfitters were pushing for the proposed shoulder seasons because outfitters could harbor elk and sell hunts on private lands, while FWP had to compensate by creating longer seasons that didn't really help other landowners.

Hunter Jim Posewitz said no bulls should be taken outside the regular season, otherwise it would open “a huge commercialization loophole.”

“The idea of elk shoulder seasons should be dismissed. The proposed objectives are inadequate, and they should include a firm and clear commitment to the public ownership and access to Montana’s wildlife, while preventing its privatization and commercialization,” Posewitz said.

While the majority of the public comment came from sportsmen, some came from landowners’ representatives and landowner committee members who said they dreaded the hunting season.

“There was a time when we allowed open hunting. All you had to do was call and ask. But over time, the cost became so great that we had to change all of that. We simply don’t have the personnel to watch hunters coming and going,” said landowner Brooke Erb of Dillon.

United Property Owners of Montana representative Chuck Denough claimed that Montana’s wildlife is already commercialized since sportsmen pay money for elk tags.

After listening to more than a dozen commenters, the committee was hesitant to object to a game damage rule that hadn’t yet been written. FWP director Jeff Hagener said the department might choose not to amend the rule at all, based upon the comments it received.

Montana On the Ground has requested copies of FWP public comments. FWP has provided comments for the elk shoulder season but has yet to provide comments from the game damage hunt rule change.

Elk populations are high in certain parts of the state, and the only way to reduce the population is with intense public hunting of cow elk. But that requires the cooperation of landowners, and some oppose allowing hunters on their land, partly because some hunters don’t act responsibly.

It’s not a new problem, but FWP controls only half of the situation, said former FWP commissioner Ron Moody. FWP is responsible for wildlife across the state but has no control over landowners and private property, and that’s where the problem is. Moody encouraged the department to step back, study the situation and devise a transparent process to manage elk. Part of that transparency should include a public map of where game damage hunts are carried out, similar to the map showing block management land.

“The department is trying to evolve from a reactive posture to a proactive posture. But I’m grievously concerned that these proposals are very much reactive, calculated to try to get the legislature off their back and nothing more,” Moody said. “It’s simply going to make matters worse.”

Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, agreed that it might be better if landowners and hunters came together to help solve the problem.

“I wouldn’t take Jeff Hagener’s job for the world, because he doesn’t please you guys and he doesn’t please me. So what in the world are we going to do?” Brenden said.

Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte said it was the committee’s right to object to any agency’s final rule, and it has done so before, most recently with the Department of Environmental Quality’s rule to regulate household wells in 2013. But Scott Aspenlieder of Billings didn’t think the committee should wade in.

“I don’t know that we are the experts to tell the agency how to manage the wildlife,” Aspenlieder said.

Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, said the committee needed to stay on top of such an important issue.

“We let the process play out, but I hope the council will see this as a grand opportunity. Even if it’s ultimately adopted, we could craft legislation to address the problem. We still have a bite at the apple,” Phillips said.

Correction 09/15/2015 - Sen. Rick Ripley's location was corrected to Wolf Creek.