Bill: More elk tags for hunter-friendly landowners

A bill proposed by the Private Land Public Wildlife council would up the incentive for landowners to allow members of the public to hunt on their land.

With landowners pressuring Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks to control elk populations that are over FWP objectives, the agency needs to find ways to open up more access to private land that is normally closed to public hunting. House Bill 96 would increase the proportion of elk tags available for willing landowners from 20 percent to 25 percent.

So, said Rep. Zach Brown, D-Bozeman, for every 100 tags issued to control elk on a particular ranch, the rancher could claim 25 for himself, immediate family members or full-time ranch employees.

“The program has been minimally used by landowners – only a few per year – so the council proposed the bill here today as a way to increase the incentive in hopes that more landowners would be interested in using it,” Brown said.

Back in 2001, House Bill 454 established the elk-tag incentive program for owners of larger properties that could support elk herds – dubbed the 454 program - which hasn’t changed much since.

But another change under HB 96 would be that ranchers who already open their land to hunters during the regular season under the Block Management program would still be allowed to get the tags if their ranch was in an over-objective hunting district and they signed a yearly contract to allow hunters in during the shoulder season. But just like with Block Management, landowners cannot charge hunters for the right to access their land.

FWP has battled the elk population problem for years because elk learn where they are safe from hunters. So during the regular season, elk will harbor on ranches where hunting isn’t allowed and the population continues to increase as a result. If hunters could spread across the landscape during the regular season, they could push the elk around and fill more tags.

Some landowners prohibit hunting because they oppose it while others want to outfit hunting trips. Still others get fed up with some hunters who aren’t courteous or get tired of being bothered. So FWP has to find ways to coax landowners into allowing public hunting to continue.

But hunters are always concerned about Montana tipping over into a “wildlife-for-sale” scenario where the majority of landowners sell the right to hunt elk.

Most hunters understand FWP’s struggle, so both the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Montana Wildlife Federation support the bill, although MWF spokesman Nick Gevock said MWF would like to require that the Environmental Quality Council be given oversight for the program and perhaps it should have a sunset date.

But most landowners’ groups were fully in favor, including the Montana Farm Bureau Federation and the Montana Stockgrowers Association. MFBF spokeswoman Chelsea Cargill called the bill an additional management tool.

“When we’re talking about management of over-objective herds, often times the people who can hunt those herds best and have the best outcome are the landowners themselves,” Cargill said.

The one surprising outlier was Chuck Denough, spokesman for the United Property Owners of Montana. Denough was quick to point out that he didn’t oppose the bill itself, but he was objecting to some of the underlying assumptions.

Denough said that landowners shouldn’t be limited in the number of tags they can get and that no restrictions should be placed on the landowners. Denough blames FWP for the elk populations, so he said landowners shouldn’t be the ones to have to jump through hoops. Finally Denough didn’t like the term “public hunter” because it gave FWP the jurisdiction to define the term to meet their agenda.

“It’s a nebulous term. The department uses the nebulous nature to suit their own needs,” Denough said. “You’re giving the department carte blanche to pick winners and losers based on the criteria that they set.”

But FWP Licensing Chief Hank Worsech said a public hunter is merely someone who has paid for a tag in a particular district and who then gets on the list for shoulder seasons.

In his closing statement Rep. Zach Brown, who was a member of the PLPW, said the ratio was set at 1:3 landowners and hunters and tags were limited to family members and employees because the bill was a compromise.

“The fundamental nature of PLPW is it’s a consensus-building exercise between a number of interests. If it took (Denough’s) perspective, it would be the Private Lands Council, instead of the Private Lands Public Wildlife council,” Brown said. “I think this is an honest attempt by a diverse group of Montanans who care about Montana’s hunting heritage to put an incentive on the table to help sportsmen and landowners and help the department meet its wildlife goals in a way that respects private property rights.”