Forces Clash Over Future of Iconic Elk Herds

Forces Clash Over Future of Iconic Elk Herds

On Dec. 6, 2021, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks announced a proposal to restructure the way it manages some of the state’s most iconic elk herds.

The proposal would open up a handful of limited-entry, trophy elk districts in the eastern and central part of the state to over-the-counter, either-sex tags only valid on private land. There would also be fewer limited-entry elk licenses issued for public land in these districts—tough tags to draw for public land hunters without access to private ground.

Local conservation groups were incensed: “It’s insulting that FWP would try to push this thing through, knowing the magnifying glass that they have on them,” John Sullivan III, board chair of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, told MeatEater. “We beat these exact same ideas back in the legislature, and they’re just trying to cram them through in a different way.”

According to Sullivan, the ideas FWP proposed on Dec. 6 are just another front in an ongoing war over elk in the state.

During the 2021 legislative session, a proposed bill sought to reserve a majority of non-resident tags for outfitted hunters. Another bill, very similar to the aforementioned proposal, would eliminate limited-entry elk permits in certain districts that FWP claims are overpopulated.

These ideas, Sullivan says, amount to little more than the privatization of Montana’s publicly-owned wildlife resources, destined to further diminish public land hunting opportunities.

It’s a message that resonates with thousands of hunters across the state and the country. No sooner had FWP announced this proposal than public comments decrying it came flooding in.

In fact, the blowback became so intense that the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission tabled the proposal during a planning session the night before they were slated to vote on it at the Dec. 14 public hearing in Helena.

Behind the Scenes Citing a maelstrom of public backlash received via email, phone calls, and social media, members of the governor-appointed commission said they would not support the proposal in its current form.

Jana Waller is a hunter and television personality who was appointed to the commision by Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte last October. Her appointment filled one of two new commission seats that the governor signed into law in April of 2021.

“I’ve received thousands of messages, whether it’s on Facebook, Instagram, or text messages. Our phone numbers have all been given out on social media. It’s just been non-stop," Waller said. "I’d like to see a statement that squashes the number one thing that's in every email, which is that [this proposal] is catering to wealthy landowners. If that could get squashed right away, I think people are going to feel diffused and maybe understand.”

Waller’s concern, that people misunderstood the goals of the proposal and who it came from, were echoed by other members of the commission.

“I had no part in this [proposal]. I still value access for everyone and taking care of the resource. Those are my principles,” Commissioner Pat Tabor said.

Tabor’s region encompasses the northwestern part of the state, where he founded Swan Mountain Outfitters. “This was an idea that came up and it got people talking, which is great, but believe me, I ain’t voting for it because I need the people to stop hating me for just a sec.”

Built on Shaky Ground One of the major concerns that Sullivan and others had with the FWP’s proposal was the outdated Montana Elk Management Plan upon which its objectives were based.

Written in 2005, the elk management plan is the guiding force behind FWP’s handling of elk herds in the state. By the agency’s own admission, it demands updating. The plan specifies carrying capacity objectives for each hunting unit, which public land hunters say don’t reflect biological data or public acceptance.

“The biggest challenge we have right now in Montana is that we’re operating off a 17-year-old elk management plan,” Sullivan said. “All these proposed changes are under this effort to meet objectives from a 2005 plan, and that plan needs to be scrapped. It’s a failure out of the gate.”

Justin Schaff is the volunteer president of Keep It Public, an Eastern Montana resident, and a former member of the FWP Elk Advisory Working Group. He agrees with Sullivan’s assessment of the current elk management plan.

“In Eastern Montana, elk populations have grown, but the management prescriptions haven’t caught up,” he told Montana Right Now. “For example, Region 7, over 30,000 square miles, has a herd objective of only 750 elk. That’s so far out of line with what the vast majority of Montanans want to have as an objective that it’s silly. It’s time for a new elk management plan that will be implemented fairly and equitably for all.”

'When You Read Either-Sex, Read Bull Elk' In addition to its reliance on an outdated elk management plan, FWP’s inclusion of bull elk tags in a proposal meant to reduce overall herd numbers on private land also frustrated opponents.

“If you’re going to reduce a population of wild ungulates, you target the females in the herd,” Sullivan said. “That is the best accepted and tested method of wildlife management.”

He says that either-sex tags, like those proposed for the limited-entry trophy units in question, do not incetivize hunters to kill cows. Most hunters would rather harvest a bull given the choice.

“When you read either-sex, read bull elk,” Sullivan said. “It would have given bull elk tags to special users, furthering this idea of monetizing and privatizing our elk, while not even remotely trying to achieve the stated goal of reducing elk herds.”

These “special users,” Sulllivan says, are often influential, large-scale landowners who don’t live as full time residents in Montana, people like billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks.

Though they are among the largest landowners in the state, the Wilks Brothers must currently still go through the draw process along with everyone else if they want to hunt the trophy bulls that roam some of their ranches, Sullivan said. Being non-residents, their chances of drawing bull elk tags are slim, which this proposal would have changed.

A Suite of New Proposals Ultimately, the commission decided that it could not support a proposal that established separate elk regulations for public and private land. At the packed public hearing in Helena on Dec. 14, FWP Dir. Henry “Hank” Worsech acknowledged the divisiveness the proposal created.

“We came together and threw a proposal out that was going to go in front of the commission that was wide open,” he said in a speech before FWP staffers, all seven commissioners, and a packed crowd of concerned citizens.

“It went to opening general licenses on private land and limiting public participation and permits because we wanted to make sure we didn’t harvest too many elk in those areas. That really started a firestorm, and I take full responsibility for that.”

Worsech and his staff also advanced a new set of proposals that were unanimously approved by the commission to go out for public comment.

First, there’s a proposal that re-visits the eight trophy elk districts that ignited Worsech’s firestorm. Instead of scrapping the limited-entry draw in these units, FWP now recommends keeping it intact. Either-sex harvest quotas, however, would be increased by 50%.

Critics of this proposal, like Sullivan of BHA, point to the inclusion of either-sex tags.

“That’s not a cow-only thing,” he said. "It’s allowing people to hunt bull elk, which is not meeting the stated objectives.”

Then there are the 900-20 archery licenses. These are limited entry, archery-only elk tags spread out across 22 hunt districts throughout regions 4, 5, and 7. As a sort of compromise, FWP has proposed a complete elimination of these tags in favor of general, over-the-counter archery elk licenses.

Sullivan says that FWP’s hastily proposed elimination of the 900-20 tags misses the mark and will cause crowding problems on public lands.

“It’s not going to reduce the herd numbers because everyone’s going to go there with their bows and try to kill a bull elk. It’s going to push elk more onto private," he said. "The ‘900-20’ tags were created 15 to 20 years ago by an outcry of Montana residents who were feeling over-pressured in these areas from outfitted and non-resident hunters, and so this is reversing something that a lot of Montanans fought hard to install.”

Additionally, the agency introduced a concept it calls the “statewide elk permit definition.” This would prohibit elk hunters who draw a tag for a specific district from hunting outside the boundaries of that district while the tag is valid.

“That’s an interesting one,” Sullivan said. “That’s a tough one for the DIY resident hunter to accept because we’ve had it so good for so friggin’ long that we could hunt anywhere, essentially, and now that might change. And that’s gonna be one where residents are going to have to ask themselves, 'How much are we willing to give up to spread people out?'”

Finally, there’s the “antlerless B” portion of the new proposal list. This would incorporate a new statewide, unlimited antlerless elk tag valid on private land in elk hunting districts that the state deems to be greater than 200% over population objective. These seasons would extend as late as Feb. 15.

“The antlerless B one is something that I could see being effective because we want to push those elk off of private," Sullivan said. “Elk herds follow cows. Bulls follow cows. So, if you’re shooting cows on private, you’re going to push them onto public and start conditioning them to stay in public.”

To Be Continued Sullivan says BHA will submit its official response to these latest proposals out in the coming days, but it’s certain to hinge on what he views as the misguided direction of the outdated elk management plan.

According to FWP, its staff will hold season setting meetings during December and early January to discuss these proposals and other hunting regulations for the ‘22-’23 season with interested members of the public. During these meetings, biologists will present information on draft hunting regulations approved by the commission.

The commission will make its final decision on all proposals during its February meeting. If you would like to provide a comment, you can do so here.

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