August 7th, 2023
Director Temple, Chair Robinson, Commissioners, Chair Beal -
First, thank you for your continued efforts to improve the Elk Hunting Access Agreements. As you know, since the 2021 legislative session, there has been great contention from the hunting community around this program. In good faith efforts to lead to better management outcomes, however, the undersigned groups often stood up at each opportunity to improve the Elk Hunting Access Agreements, whether that be in support of HB 596, or providing largely supportive testimony during recent Commission meetings.
However, we again want to bring up some additional changes we believe are necessary for this program to fulfill its purpose as it continues to gain popularity (50 landowner applications this year, up from 37 in 2022). We appreciate your careful consideration.
Our goal here is to make improvements that will provide better experiences for hunters and landowners, create fewer headaches for Department staff, and most importantly, lead to better wildlife management outcomes. If refined, we see this program emerging as a truly viable and effective tool to achieve targeted, on-the-ground elk management. Some of our concerns could be addressed with rulemaking, or by Commission action, and some would require legislation, which we hope the Department would consider requesting.
Setting the stage is 87-2-513 and HB 596 which mandate that the Elk Hunting Access Agreements are "for wildlife management purposes." It is under this umbrella that our critiques and suggestions reside.
1) Performance Requirements
While 87-2-513 outlines that "to be eligible for a license or permit pursuant to this section, a landowner: (a) must own occupied elk habitat that is large enough, in the Department's determination, to accommodate successful public hunting" it fails to define both ‘occupied elk habitat" and “successful public hunting." Without definitions, it’s impossible to properly establish eligibility.
According to the 2023 Proposal Master List, many agreements saw little to no public hunting success, especially from the public hunters selected by the Department. While we acknowledge there are valid concerns and limitations with harvest requirements - which we help address below when we discuss qualified hunter lists - we encourage the Department and Commission to look into this needed definition of "successful public hunting."
Once ‘success’ is better defined, the next step would be to outline expectations for renewal. We suggest some flexibility that acknowledges good faith efforts by landowners and the Department, but would encourage a process in which landowners are ineligible for the Elk Hunting Access Agreements for one year if they fail to meet the definition of success in two consecutive years of enrollment, for example.
Additionally, 87-2-513 also fails to define what constitutes as "occupied elk habitat," as does HB 596, even though it adds an 'at least 640-acre" requirement. Despite this "occupied elk habitat" requirement, many of the comments from public hunters in 2022 claim there were no elk present; we encourage the Department and Commission to look into this needed definition of "occupied elk habitat" with a recognition that 87-2-513 and HB 596 state a requirement to allow free public hunting "throughout the regular hunting season," not just the shoulder seasons. Targeting areas occupied by elk and giving the public reasonably high chances of success will only help to increase harvest rates and to achieve program goals.
2) Quotas and Transparency
We again encourage the Department and the Commission to make these landowner tags part of the biologist-recommended and Commissioner-approved quotas rather than in addition to them.
Not only would this respect the integrity of the quotas and the established process familiar to hunters, but it would have the added benefit of helping distribute public land hunting pressure to areas where it's needed. Hunter distribution and overcrowding remain a hot topic - and for good reason - and the problem is far from solved.
In 2023, roughly 80 landowner tags were requested, meaning some 240 licensed public hunters could, in theory, be moved from hunting public lands to private-only. However, if these landowner tags were a part of the quota rather than in addition to it, that number would rise to 320, using 2023's applications as an example.
These numbers are significant, especially with respect to the coveted, limited-entry permit areas, and if growing interest from landowners continues. Public acceptance of the Elk Hunting Access Agreements stands to increase if there was a clear and measurable hunter distribution relief benefit to point to, and based on the feedback from 2022, we don't have that yet.
To include these Elk Hunting Access Agreement landowner permits in the quotas rather than allowing them to be add-ons, the Department would need to move the entire process up a few months to align with the March 15th application deadline. This is a reasonable request.
Relatedly, the current timing of this program is flawed for a few reasons. For one, it allows landowners to wait to see if they draw a permit in the general drawing before deciding if they want to commit to this program; this forces the question of motivations for enrollment: is it really a management tool or just a way for landowners to get coveted permits if they’re unsuccessful in the general draw?
Secondly, by moving this up, the Department and the Commission could benefit from a Proposal Master List being available with sufficient time for public comment. The 2023 list wasn't made available for comment until after the online comment period had ended, meaning the only opportunity to provide feedback on these applications was during the Commission meeting. Only two parties provided comments; that's not adequate public participation, not to mention it’s almost impossible for both the Commission and the public to comment and expect changes on individual Elk Hunting Access Agreement proposals; it’s simply too big and cumbersome for that conversation to play out in a two-minute-or-less public forum. We can do better by moving the entire process up to provide ample public comment opportunity and alignment with the general deer and elk drawings.
We also noticed that the 2023 Proposal Master List and Elk Hunting Access Agreement Program Evaluation Report provided unclear and perhaps a little misleading success rates from the hunters selected by the Department in the 2022 season:
"Public hunters reported pursuing elk for an average of 3.5 days with most seeing elk (87.5%) and a majority harvesting an elk (62.5%) and most commonly a branch antlered bull elk (N=26)," states the Department's report. "Ultimately, only 58.2% (N=64) of the required and selected public hunters went hunting on enrolled lands.”
However, if only 58.2% of the required and selected public hunters even participated, saying that 62.5%, the majority, harvested an elk is unfair.
More accurately, only 58.2% of qualified members of the public participated, and of those that did hunt, 62.5% - or only 36.375% of all qualified members of the public - harvested an elk.
This also doesn’t clarify which members of the public were successful: the landowner-selected hunters or the hunters chosen by the Department. It’s important that we differentiate, capture, and report this.
Along those lines, to honestly gauge the success of this program, we request that FWP break down and share this information a little differently moving forward. We ask that the following be added to the reports and Proposed Master Lists:
1) # of landowner participants, # of elk killed by landowners by gender, overall success rate
2) # of landowner designees participated, # of elk killed by landowner designs by gender, overall success rate
3) # of public hunters selected equitably by FWP, # of elk killed by gender, overall success rate
This information, provided in this manner, will paint a much clearer picture on the success of the program, and allow the public and the Commission to evaluate it accordingly, per the intent of the law.
3) Better Lists, Greater Management Success
As suggested by the elk advisory group in 2022, there is a growing need for FWP to revisit the applicant lists for both the hunt roster damage hunts and the Elk Hunting Access Agreements.
When the Elk Hunting Access Agreements were created, there were specific lists of tag holders who were eligible for these areas. However, since then, many of these permitted opportunities have become unlimited - for residents and nonresidents alike - and others have become incredibly numerous. Often, these permits are held by members of the public who live hundreds of miles or more away from the hunt area, making reliable participation at a moment’s notice or the opportune time challenging, if not impossible.
To address this while not unfairly excluding interested members of the public, we encourage the following new strategies for selecting these public hunters:
a) Rather than pulling from lists of unassuming permit holders who may have little to no interest in participating, lists should be created from an opt-in program. FWP currently uses the opt-in program when dealing with unlimited permit areas; we simply ask that the Department move towards this opt-in process for all Elk Hunting Access Agreement participant list building.
b) However, the opt-in process needs refinement as well. We suggest charging a modest fee to apply for the Elk Hunting Access Agreement participant list. Something as little as $5 or $10 could force hunters to think twice about this and ask themselves if they’re serious about this opportunity. We don't want this to be cost prohibitive. Fees could be returned if folks aren’t called or - preferably - could be put towards Block Management, Habitat Montana, or other game damage efforts like fence repairs, etc.
c) Additionally, we suggest adding a geographical requirement for signing up for the Elk Hunting Access Agreement participant lists. The goal here isn't to exclude anyone per se, but rather to again provide FWP and landowners with a list of hunters who can realistically take part in the program with little notice or at the opportune time when elk are present. Based on the feedback from 2022, this has been a widespread issue. We suggest limiting the Elk Hunting Access Agreement participant lists to i) residents, ii) nonresidents who live within 150 miles of the hunt area, iii) full-time nonresident college students in Montana, and iv) nonresident landowners.
d) There needs to be a feedback mechanism in place where selected hunters must decide if they will participate or not, and do so in a timely fashion. There could be a timeframe on this that requires a purchase (a la the surplus license lists), or there could be a penalty imposed if the selected hunters don’t participate (loss of eligibility for future years, for example). This would allow hunters who harvested elk elsewhere or are experiencing health issues - two of the primary reasons cited for lack of participation - to pass their opportunity onto someone else selected by the Department.
e) Finally, ideally, if the entire process is moved up a few months, selected members of the public would be made aware of this opportunity prior to the general season not months into it. This can only help to set expectations and make plans that will accommodate higher success rates.
In closing, again, the undersigned would like to see the Elk Hunting Access Agreement evolve into a tool we can rely on to successfully manage elk and meet hunter and landowner expectations. We believe this means living up to the intent and language of the management goals and requirements set forth in statute and reaffirmed in the 2021 and 2023 legislative sessions.
We look forward to talking and working with you on this. Thank you again for your time and consideration.
Nick Siebrasse, Vice President & Legislative/Access Chairman
Steve Platt, President
Helena Hunters & Anglers
Andrew Gorder, President
Hellgate Hunters & Anglers
Thomas Baumeister, Vice Chair
Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers
Jeff Herbert, Leadership Group
Montana Sportsmen Alliance
Bill Bryce, President
Park County Rod and Gun Club
Mark Oswald, President
Ravalli County Fish & Wildlife Association
Les Castren, President
Skyline Sportsmen's Association
Bill Siebrasse, President
Traditional Bowhunters of Montana