Following the 2015 Legislature, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks hurried to launch some big projects. But a few proposals are similar enough that they have caused confusion for sportsmen, and that’s bred distrust.
The two most contentious proposals deal with Montana’s elk season, or rather the hunts that can be allowed outside the normal five-week season. For the past two months, FWP commissioners have received lots of calls about proposals dealing with shoulder seasons and game damage hunts.
"The fact that (the proposals) coming forward at approximately the same time, I think there is a little bit of confusion about what aspects of each one of those proposals relates to the other one" said commissioner Gary Wolfe on Aug. 25.
Game-damage hunts use hunters from a roster to disperse herds for individual landowners who allow some public hunting during the regular season.
Meanwhile, shoulder seasons would allow the public to hunt before or after the regular season in specified districts where herds are over-objective.
Elk herds exceed FWP objectives in several districts, and landowners have been pressuring the agency to reduce the size of the herds. But some hunters claim the proposed solutions are a step toward privatizing hunting because landowners can harbor elk and then lease their land to outfitters, so they benefit financially while contributing to elk overpopulation.
Both proposals have potential snags, and some hunters haven’t liked how FWP has carried out the public process.
“I understand it’s confusing to people. But if you really read it, it’s not that confusing,” said FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim. “For some reason, they just don’t trust us.”
FWP first proposed using shoulder seasons at an October 2014 commission meeting. A similar kind of season called “management hunts” existed prior to 2005.
This year, after a Legislative bill mandating shoulder seasons was defeated by a veto in April, FWP has continued to push for shoulder seasons, possibly trying to head off another legislative threat in two years.
After getting pushback from hunters’ groups that argued that a 30-day comment period was too short when people work or are gone during the summer, the commission extended the comment period for the shoulder seasons until Aug. 28.
Aasheim said FWP could have waited until next year to bring the shoulder season proposal forward, but managers wanted it to coincide with the commission’s season setting that is carried out every two years.
“If we even want to discuss shoulder seasons in December, we need to make the major changes during the first year of the two-year biennium. This doesn’t say we’re going to have shoulder seasons; this says we can have them. It still takes a specific shoulder season proposal in a specific district to come before the commission and public comment to pass it,” Aasheim said.
Although outfitters and some hunters want the shoulder seasons for additional hunting opportunity, some are opposed for two main reasons: extending the hunting season ignores the fact that overpopulation has often resulted from harboring and limited public hunting, and similar seasons haven’t significantly reduced elk populations in the past.
Retired FWP biologist Kevin Hamlin did research on management seasons prior to 2005 and found that elk populations are effectively reduced only when many hunters have access to the majority of a district. If hunters have access only to small chunks of block management or public land, the elk learn to move to private land where they’re safe.
“I have determined that elk are smarter than a fifth-grader and humans in general,” Hamlin said in October. “Another thing I think we can learn is that postage-stamp solutions on small pieces of private land with only a few cooperating landowners are unlikely to produce the results hoped for.”
Aasheim said the shoulder season proposal differs from the management seasons prior to 2005 because half of the current year's population increase has to be taken during the general season for a district to qualify for a shoulder season.
“There’s not going to be a shoulder season unless they allow public access to take that percentage of recruitment,” Aasheim said. “But that’s the question: If landowners aren’t already opening their land, why would they?”
Last week, Montana Sportsmen Alliance representative Joe Perry met with FWP staff and said he was disappointed to learn that landowners who open their land to hunters only during a shoulder season, not the regular season, could qualify for a game damage hunt.
“The department is afraid that if they don’t give these legislators something, at the next session, they will lose the ability to manage elk,” Perry said. “I can’t say that I think they’re wrong. I just asked if they are willing to lose the public.”
GAME DAMAGE HUNTS
Game damage hunts are “postage-stamp solutions” for which FWP was taken to task in a June Legislative audit. Fingering poor management as a pervasive problem, the audit prompted the proposed rule changes, but they’re coming at the same time as the shoulder season proposal.
To speed up the changes, FWP managers are bypassing the commission process, said Landowner/Sportsmen coordinator Alan Charles. But the rush made sportsmen suspect that FWP Director Jeff Hagener was railroading the changes through to appease landowners.
“People have the impression that they’re going to ram these through one way or the other. That they’re soliciting comments but they really don’t have any intention of paying any attention to them – at least that’s the feel,” Perry said.
Sportsmen also complained that during two mid-August public meetings televised to the district offices from Helena, Charles took minimal public comment and the meetings weren’t well advertised.
“If they didn’t think it was well advertised, we’ll take some responsibility. That’s a fair question, but how far do you have to go?” Aasheim said.
The biggest problem sportsmen had with the proposed game-damage rules is that landowners would allowed to name a good percentage of the hunters included on the hunt roster. Aashiem said FWP managers are aware of that concern.
Also, nothing in the rules could ensure that landowners weren’t selling the opportunity to be in the damage hunts, and nothing guaranteed that public hunters would get a fair chance to hunt.
Aasheim said hunters should wait and see what FWP does with the proposals.
“The idea was to get public comment, get interim rules in place so we could move on game damage this year. We already have 40 game damage hunts going on,” Aasheim said. “But it comes down to trust.”
Comments closed on Friday for the proposed elk shoulder seasons and the comment period for game-damage hunts closed the previous week.
At the Aug. 6 commission meeting, Hagener said he'd received 550 comments. At the Aug. 25 meeting, chairman Dan Vermillion said 90 percent of the comments he'd received were opposed. The commission will meet on Sept. 18 for a special session on the shoulder seasons.
FWP Information Bureau Chief Thomas Palmer said the comments were still being processed, so he didn’t know how many comments were submitted or whether they generally supported or opposed the various proposals.
“This had a lot of interest but people were confusing the two,” Palmer said.
Aasheim said FWP is trying to find additional ways to kill enough elk without encouraging "ranching for wildlife" or using FWP biologists to reduce the elk population.
“Nobody’s delusional enough to think this is the cure-all. But why not open some seasons early and leave them open longer and see if it works,” Aasheim said.