Why do we want to Keep Elk Public?

1. Why did Montana hunting and conservation groups formally file to intervene in the lawsuit by United Property Owners of Montana?  

The coalition’s members – Montana-based hunting and conservation organizations – have continually opposed efforts to degrade Montana’s time-tested system of wildlife management and fought back repeated attempts to privatize and commercialize public elk. Montana is the envy of the world when it comes to wildlife held in public trust and the opportunity for the average person to be a hunter.   

The United Property Owners of Montana’s (UPOM) lawsuit is a direct attack on wildlife management and public hunting traditions. We will not sit idly by while Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks and the Fish & Wildlife Commission are bullied by self-serving interests into abandoning sound wildlife management and equitable hunting opportunities in Montana. Our coalition believes intervening in this lawsuit is the best option to guarantee that the interests of Montana’s hunters are defended from public wildlife being privatized by a select group of private landowners. Since the key leadership positions at both Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Fish and Wildlife Commission are politically appointed, it is essential that the public has a voice in this lawsuit. We run the risk of this lawsuit being settled between the plaintiff and the defendants that may not be in the best interest of the public elk hunter. And that’s why we need to be involved!  

2. Why do the groups in the coalition care about elk management in Montana?

Elk are a native species and deserve to be on the Montana landscape. They are an important part of our state’s identity, and they anchor a strong hunting heritage in the Big Sky State. Members of our coalition prize the opportunity to conserve, manage and hunt elk as part of sporting traditions that in many cases span generations. 

The bigger issue at play in this lawsuit, however, is the direct attack on all wildlife management, not just elk. Wildlife is a public trust resource in Montana, owned and held in common by and for all the people – not just a select few. The public must have a say in how elk as a public resource is managed, and the lawsuit from UPOM seeks to remove the public’s voice from elk management for the benefit of a few. We believe elk need to be treated as publicly owned wildlife and we oppose any and all efforts to privatize them. We believe that public hunting can be an effective tool to control and disperse elk. 

3. What is UPOM’s track record of engaging in decisions about elk management in Montana?

For years, UPOM has repeatedly attempted to get unlimited and unrestricted elk permits for out-of-state and resident landowning members and outfitted clients. They want to put a hefty price tag on bull elk hunting on private land more than they already do. That’s the bottom line here.  

In the 2021 legislative session, UPOM pushed bills that would have forced FWP to change from equitably allocated permitted hunting opportunities to unlimited over-the-counter tags for bull elk and given outfitted hunters 60% of the non-resident elk tags. They also wanted to see large landowners given free non-resident bull tags but stopped short of supporting HB 505 because they claimed it didn't go far enough. Each of these bills mostly defeated, which has led UPOM to seek other avenues to accomplish its goals.  

Later in 2021, UPOM lobbied the Fish and Wildlife Commission and FWP to change hunting regulations to allow for unlimited bull elk hunting on private lands while cutting the number of available public land hunting opportunities in half. In fact, they had FWP draft the actual bill language. This was met by a firestorm of opposition led from the groups involved in this intervention effort, and the proposal was tabled in December of 2021.  

In early 2022, UPOM encouraged the Fish and Wildlife Commission and FWP to drastically increase the number of bull tags available to landowners, while staying mostly silent on some of the proposals that could help address elk population issues, like more aggressive cow elk harvests.  

During February 2022’s Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting, biennial regulations were accepted that seek to target over-objective elk numbers by allowing six months of cow elk hunting in virtually all districts at or above the stated and outdated populations objectives. These opportunities are now unlimited for both residents and non-residents alike, which allows one hunter to take up to three elk in the state, pending specific regulations. But before these changes could take effect, UPOM filed this lawsuit to get what they really want: bull elk tags. Their aim is not to solve ‘abundant elk’ as so often stated, rather it’s to make sure they can benefit financially from selling the opportunity to hunt bull elk on private and public land. That’s their end game.   

UPOM cites elk population numbers as the sole justification for its demands to privatize and commercialize elk hunting. By pointing to outdated and socially created elk objective numbers to justify its requests, UPOM is obscuring its real goal: unlimited bull tags for large landowners and outfitters who have agreements to hunt trophy bull elk on private land.   

Repeatedly, Montana hunters have supported incentivized access programs to open private lands for public hunting opportunities as well as efforts to target cow-elk-only hunts as the best solutions for reducing elk numbers and addressing the real issue: elk concentrations. Yet UPOM instead is pushing for access to unlimited, high-value bull elk permits. Whether at the Legislature, the Fish and Wildlife Commission, or Fish, Wildlife and Parks, UPOM has been consistent in what they are after. That much is clear. Their latest attempt is aimed at the Montana courts.    

4. Why do these hunter and conservation groups oppose the UPOM suit?

The UPOM suit risks not just equitable elk hunting opportunities; it also jeopardizes wildlife management overall. The very idea that wildlife is owned by the public for the benefit of the public is at stake when UPOM argues for the removal of the Fish & Wildlife Commission from decision-making and instead assigns that authority solely to the Legislature. This is both a dangerous and consequential approach as it weakens the voice of the public. Montana’s citizen legislature is not best suited to make day-to-day decisions on wildlife management, and this change would serve only to further politicize our hunting and fishing opportunities by allowing well-funded special interest groups to get their way. The way wildlife has been managed by the state of Montana with the Fish & Wildlife Commission making most of the decisions within the broader sideboards provided by the Legislature has been a time-tested and effective approach to fine-tune management programs that meet the needs of wishes of all stakeholders including landowners. UPOM seeks to overthrow this.    

5. Why are privately owned lands in Montana important to elk management and hunting opportunity?

All coalition members support and respect private lands and private landowners. Roughly two-thirds of Montana is privately owned, and an even higher proportion of critical wintering grounds for elk are in private ownership. Montana landowners are good stewards of the land, providing quality habitat for wildlife and often public hunting access.  

Fortunately, numerous programs already exist that help landowners: Block Management pays impact fees to landowners for allowing public hunting access; for those landowners who provide at least some public hunting opportunity as part of the solution, FWP provides game damage assistance and materials; and FWP offers damage hunts and, when needed, up to six-month-long shoulder seasons focused on harvesting cow elk. Montana has plenty of tools in the toolbox for landowners who want to address problems associated with high concentrations of elk on their properties.  

6. What do the hunting and conservation groups hope to achieve by intervening in the lawsuit?

We hope that our intervention will result in the dismissal of the UPOM suit, that wildlife management decisions remain a responsibility of the Fish & Wildlife Commission, and that both existing and new solutions are utilized to address elk concentrations in certain areas of Montana. We also hope this sparks some urgency in the need to prioritize an updated elk management plan.   

7. What is the vision of these groups for elk management in Montana?

The severely outdated and socially constructed elk management objectives from 2004 need to be revisited. If there is a problem, it’s due to concentrations of elk, not the overall elk population; we have an elk distribution issue, not an elk abundance issue. Elk that are inaccessible to public hunters and harvests due to landowner decisions need to be counted but should not be included in hunting district elk objectives.  

In other words, public wildlife and public opportunities shouldn’t suffer simply because some landowners are hoarding elk and creating problems for their neighbors who often allow hunters to hunt elk on their property. Elk are really smart, and are quick to learn where they are safe. That’s the challenge here.   

Elk management must include equitable hunting opportunities that do not favor those based on how many acres of land they own or how much money they have in their bank accounts.  

Montana needs to remain a place where anyone – regardless of social status or background – can have a fair and equitable chance of drawing an elk permit. And this is why this group has filed to intervene on behalf of your and our opportunity to manage and hunt elk as a public trust resource held in common by every citizen of this state.  

 

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