Montana FWP recently shared the results of their research gauging hunters' satisfaction with elk management in Montana. The survey was sent to 5,000 randomly selected resident hunters with half returning a response.
In corresponding press releases and news articles, FWP reports the finding that 73% of Montana hunters are ‘satisfied with elk management in Montana’, albeit noting concerns of hunter crowding, limited access to private lands, and too few elk on public lands. Issues that are all too common these days, so no big surprise there.
However, a closer look at these results gives us pause. Take for example this question, the responses, and how FWP presents them:
FWP employs the commonly accepted 5-point Likert scale to gauge hunter satisfaction. This scale provides five possible choices: two to measure favorability, a neutral option (neither favorable nor unfavorable), and two to measure unfavorability. Pretty straightforward so far.
Now, if we remove the 38.2% who reported neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, we can only confidently point to 34.8% who are satisfied or very satisfied, compared to 26.9%, on the other end, who are dissatisfied or very dissatisfied.
This paints a very different picture than FWP stating that 73% of hunters are satisfied.
It appears FWP is taking the liberty to count the neutral responses in the “satisfied” category, something we flagged for them upon review and were told via email that “folks can interpret the results in their own way.” We find their answer unsatisfactory, perhaps troubling.
Following FWP’s logic, we could just as easily count those neutral responses as being dissatisfied, meaning that 65.1% of Montana are dissatisfied. This would give us a valid reason to be alarmed as FWP is required, among other things, to manage for hunter satisfaction.
Furthermore, FWP’s news release states that "hunters preferred less restrictive elk hunting regulations across the state compared to more restrictive regulations that would limit opportunity in favor of hunting for older class bulls."
This statement raised our eyebrows even more, given the pushback from Montana hunters on similar ideas, like Rep. Kassmier’s HB 417 in the 2021 session (which was so unpopular among elk hunters that it was withdrawn before it even had a hearing). If hunters want to do away with limited-entry opportunities, then why the outpouring of opposition in the halls of the legislature, at Commission meetings, or on online hunting forums whenever ideas like that surface? This doesn’t add up.
So we took a closer look.
According to FWP’s survey, 45.4% of respondents said 'to harvest a mature bull' was either “important “or “very important." Only 26.9% claimed it was “unimportant” or “very unimportant.” Others were neutral or indifferent. These responses seem to counter the way FWP's release is phrased, making it seem like Montanans don't care about encountering older age-class bulls. These numbers suggest they in fact do.
But even more so, FWP's survey fails to recognize that Montanans aren't currently faced with an either-or scenario. Sportsmen and women who hunt in general areas certainly want to retain the ability to hunt there each and every year; that's not surprising. But could many of those same hunters be supportive of the limited entry opportunities elsewhere in the state that they can take advantage of every so often? Probably so, or at least to the extent that the conclusion FWP has drawn should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Missing from the August 9th press release was a link to the full answers; just the summary was included. After we brought this to FWP’s attention, this has since been corrected in the online version. Among other things, we wanted to look at the regional breakdowns.
When broken down for regional differences, we actually see that the majority (51.5%) of those surveyed who hunt in Region 6, for example, prefer “the opportunity to hunt bull elk once every several years in this Region of the state (with a higher probability of harvesting a mature bull).” This is likely because it’s generally recognized in these areas with limited public access and open country that a free-for-all would ruin public land elk hunting.
To support our point, when you compare that to Region 1 which has ample public access and is already almost exclusively under general season regulations, the numbers flip with 82.1% of respondents who hunt in that region saying that “the opportunity to hunt bull elk every year in this region of the state (with a lower probability of harvesting a mature bull)” is more important to them. This makes perfect sense: hunters understand what they have regionally and value those opportunities.
Furthermore, take the 63% of respondents who say there were too few mature bull elk in the area they hunt, with only 8.5% saying there were too many. And add that to the 60.3% of respondents say there are too many elk hunters, with only 4.5% saying there are too few hunters.
Those two answers - that Montana hunters overwhelming think there are too few mature bulls where they hunt, and at the same time too many hunters - paint a very different picture than FWP claiming in their press release that Montanans prefer “less restrictive elk hunting regulations across the state compared to more restrictive regulations that would limit opportunity in favor of hunting for older age class bulls.”
Combined with the response that 69.3% of hunters would like to hunt their regions each and every year, these three siloed questions show us that Montanans a) want to hunt each and every year, b) want to hunt older elk, and c) want fewer hunters in the field. Again, no surprise.
But are all three preferences attainable at once? Of course not.
So why does any of this matter, and why do we question FWP on their interpretation of the survey data?
Because how we manage and hunt elk is based in no small part on what science tells us, and FWP has already stated that they intend “to use results from this survey as an important piece of information in the consideration of future management.”
It’s a contentious time for elk management right now, with multiple FWP-selected stakeholder groups looking at the issues, bills being hotly debated in the legislature, and proposals starting firestorms during Commission meetings. So now, more than ever, we need FWP to ask tailored questions that address the realtime issues and proposals being considered rather than asking siloed questions that provide information we can’t confidently act on.
Here’s the bottom line: flawed survey findings may lend support for what may turn out to be a bad elk management decision from a hunter satisfaction standpoint, among other consequences.
Overall, we arrive at different conclusions based on elk hunter reactions to proposals and these survey results: Montanans appreciate their opportunity to hunt elk each and every year in general units with ample public lands and public access, but they also like the opportunities every so often to hunt limited-entry areas where, more often than not, public access is a limiting factor and one may have to wait for years to draw a coveted permit. In other words, Montana hunters seem to prefer to hunt each year and cherish the opportunity to get an elk rather than chasing a big bull, or rather than no elk at all, but they absolutely still like the opportunity every so often for a unique, limited-entry hunt, and are willing to wait their turn for that (so long as they can hunt other parts of the state each year).
We sincerely appreciate the commitment to research from the department, and we too value the sentiments of Montana hunters. This is exactly why we wanted to take a closer look at these findings. It’s also why we defended the Department’s ability to collect and utilize this sort of information when we adamantly opposed HB 161 during the 2019 legislative session. Yet we fear that this poorly executed survey may be used to justify one of the big changes in FWP’s recently released Draft Elk Management Plan that would move permitted, limited-entry elk districts to general, over-the-counter units. We don't believe this is what the results are suggesting.
The only way to get close to what we believe the survey results actually tell us, however, is to continue offering a hybrid system where the majority of elk hunting units are general opportunities, and others remain limited-entry for bulls while still offering ample cow harvest opportunities on private lands for those experiencing problematic concentrations of elk.
If we continue to focus on improving public lands habitat and access to inaccessible elk, we envision a future survey where 73% of Montanans are satisfied with elk management. But we’re not there yet.
We believe this is what Montana elk hunters are actually saying and are hopeful for, but take a look yourselves.
Before retiring, Thomas Baumeister worked for FWP in hunter education and research for almost twenty years. He lives in Helena and currently serves as the Vice Chair for the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.