LETTER: MT BHA Comments on 2022 Elk Management Scoping

October 14, 2022

 

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks

Attn: Wildlife

P.O. Box 200701

Helena, MT 59620-0701

 

Re: 2022 Elk Management Scoping Comments

 

Director Worsech:

 

The Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers is a grassroots, volunteer-led conservation group with roughly 3,000 dues-paying members in the state, plus tens of thousands of supporters. Our members care deeply about quality wildlife habitat and equitable, fair-chase hunting and fishing opportunities. There are few things that get our members more fired up than elk hunting and elk management.

First, we’d like to recognize the hard work being put in by the Department, the Commission, PLPW and EQC to find a better path forward with elk management.

Our Chapter has taken every opportunity to contribute towards improving elk management in Montana. We actively engage on legislative bills related to elk management and work with the Fish & Wildlife Commission, FWP staff, the PLPW, with the EQC and with FWP’s Citizen’s Elk Management Citizen Advisory Group. We’ve attended Elk Management Scoping Meetings, FWP open houses and more. We are one of the founding members of the non-governmental Montana Citizen’s Elk Management Coalition and we intervened in a lawsuit against FWP and the Fish & Wildlife Commission that threatens Montana’s elk populations, hunter opportunities and sound wildlife management. In other words, we are very aware of the issues before us, have spent a lot of time on these items and hope and expect that our comments are taken seriously as well-intended solutions for the issues we face today regarding elk management.

We submit the following comments relative to the 2022 Elk Management Plan Scoping effort:

 

1. Problematic Elk Objectives

The elk management objectives set in 2005 have created more problems than solutions. Those numbers were set using social tolerance for elk at the time, or in some cases just the population at that time, and both have changed significantly in the last two decades. At the very least, FWP needs to revisit objectives while factoring in biological carrying capacities, land ownership changes, public access challenges, inaccessible herds, and deterioration to wildlife habitat on public lands – especially security habitat - and adjust elk objectives and management plans accordingly.

However, we see the expectation that FWP must manage to meet those objectives as unreasonable and only exacerbating the problem. Here’s why this approach is incredibly problematic:

While it sounds good in theory, the fact is that managing elk populations to meet objectives requires both hunter and landowner participation, and the state cannot force participation from landowners in elk management. Using the last 18 years as evidence, we can see that without landowner cooperation, the idea of managing to elk population objectives did not work, and quite likely never will. We cannot manage elk that we cannot access.

To FWP’s credit, the department recognized this problem in the 2005 plan when they specifically mentioned that inaccessible elk should not be counted in management objectives; however, without exception, that direction has not been followed and inaccessible elk continue to balloon the elk counts. This misstep has led FWP to liberalize seasons, tags, and permits – thinking that more tags, longer seasons and more hunters will kill more elk – but what we’ve seen is that this strategy intensifies the problem rather than helping solve it (more tags for longer periods of time puts more pressure on the publicly accessible elk, pushing more elk onto inaccessible lands).

We acknowledge that setting population objectives is an important tool in wildlife management, and a good goal to shoot for, but there are too many externalities that FWP cannot control and meeting those objectives should not be mandated. They should be goals, not ‘requirements.’

For those who believe there are too many elk, or are experiencing legitimate elk concentration issues, it’s important to remember that Montana FWP has worked hard to develop numerous, incentive-based programs in which landowners can participate in to reduce local elk numbers or to compensate landowners for losses caused by elk. These include but are not limited to the hunt

roster damage hunts, shoulder seasons, block management, widely available cow elk tags (up to three (3) per hunter), crop damage payments, the 454 elk hunting access agreements, landowner permits and more. Highlighting these tools in the new elk plan while continuing to improve them is key.

It’s become clear that the controlling factor of elk management in Montana is not biological carrying capacity or landowner/social tolerance, or the number of hunters or tags, it’s access. FWP would be wise to accept that and adjust the elk plan accordingly to reflect that reality.

 

2. Non-Resident Hunter Cap

We understand the need to address hunter crowding and hunter distribution. We are not currently in favor of changing to a pick-your- season/weapon scenario, and we remain unconvinced that this will have any significant impact on the issue of either hunter crowding nor elk distribution. We are dedicated however to ensuring resident hunters do not lose the tradition and opportunities provided by Montana’s long and diverse hunting seasons, though we fully admit that unless changes are made, the current season structure may not be sustainable.

Along those lines, we suggest that Montana FWP strive for a firm 10% cap for all non-resident hunting opportunities. This would include not just the current non-resident A tag permits and licenses that are capped, but also cow B tags as well as other big game licenses and permits. Currently, we have a complicated system which is both deceptive and confusing and allows for far more than 10% non-resident elk hunters – not to mention non-residents hunting deer, upland, bear, and others – which creates a significant amount of hunting pressure. Elk don’t know what tag a hunter has in their pocket, and a 90:10 split between resident and non-resident hunters is both reasonable, and equitable and puts the resident hunters first, as it should be, while still allowing ample opportunity for non-residents and the guiding and outfitting industry. We believe changes to current discounted licenses for non-residents, along with the increasing number of resident licenses being sold, combined with increases in Pittman Robertson funds as well as potential new funding sources like the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act will more than make up for any fiscal loss for the Department resulting from a firm 10% cap.

 

3. Elk Security, Habitat Improvements and Travel Management

Simply put, we can't expect elk to be - or stay - on public lands if they don't have both quality feed and a sense of security. We encourage FWP to continue to work with - and perhaps put even more resources into collaborative efforts with - public land management agencies including the

U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management on both grazing management and travel management plans.

So much of the discussion and focus regarding elk management lately has centered on private lands and public access to inaccessible elk, but we encourage FWP to look at the other side of the fence of this issue as well. More emphasis on public lands habitat improvements and careful travel management as well as utilizing Habitat Montana to create new opportunities from acquisitions and perpetual easements will help to both better distribute elk and provide access to them during hunting seasons.

We cannot underemphasize how important this public lands (or publicly accessible lands) habitat piece of the elk management puzzle is, and we encourage the department to continue and to expand their efforts with public land management agencies in this regard.

 

4. Mandatory Reporting and Elk Counts

Accurate harvest reporting is a key component of herd and population management, and one that needs to be significantly improved on. Mandatory harvest reporting has been adopted by neighboring states and has been successful. Every license holder should be required to report harvest (or lack thereof) before they are allowed to buy another. Today’s technology makes this very simple, and it could dramatically improve harvest data in Montana. FWP’s cell phone app could be a great tool for this.

Additionally, better population counts are needed. In many Region 1 Hunt Districts, for example, phone-collected harvest data is the only tool being used to measure herd numbers, giving FWP and Montanans an incomplete picture of elk populations at best. We need to get a better grasp on herd numbers year after year and the impact hunting has on elk populations and distributions, and then adjust accordingly.

 

5. Annual Hunting Regulations Adjustments

When needed, Montana FWP should allow for hunting regulations to be adjusted annually. This would allow prescriptive management based on previous year’s (mandatory) harvest reporting and other inputs and would allow FWP to react to on-the-ground condition changes such as severe weather, success rates, or land ownership.

 

6. Regional Meetings

We ask FWP institute annual Hunt District-specific stakeholder meetings facilitated by FWP field biologists to fine-tune season setting. Encouraging participation from landowners, hunters, and others, these could lead to direct and productive discussions about current on-the-ground conditions and identify solutions and uncontentious (or less contentious) paths forward. Meetings should be supplemented with a standardized online comment period to solicit input to help identify what is working - and what isn’t - at a very localized level.

 

7. Increase the number of Hunt Districts

Montana FWP should create more (not fewer) hunting districts. Fewer, larger districts with blanket regulations tend to experience overharvest in portions of the HDs, while harvest in areas with the higher populations remain relatively untouched due to poor access options.

More, smaller hunting districts would allow for refined management allowing FWP and hunters to target elk management problem areas using a more adaptive, localized and temporally/spatially sophisticated approach. The recent consolidation of hunt districts has achieved the opposite and is not what we need to address the current elk distribution issues.

 

In closing, we appreciate the Department for recognizing that an elk management plan revision is long overdue and being willing to take this on. We remain optimistic that with careful considerations and honest acceptance of on-the-ground realities around elk management, public access, and problematic concentrations of elk - and the real reasons behind those - that we can find a path forward that addresses the legitimate concerns while not giving into demands that would privatize and commercialize our elk. If we don't proceed carefully here, we risk accomplishing little while unnecessarily forcing Montanans to sacrifice the equitable hunting opportunities and traditions we cherish. And once they're gone, they'll be very hard to get back.

 

Thank you for the opportunity to comment,

 

John B. Sullivan III

Board Chair

The Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers

About John Sullivan

See other posts related to access habitat montana issues