July 31, 2023
Montana FWP Wildlife Division
1420 East Sixth Avenue
Helena, MT 59620
RE: Montana BHA Comments on the 2023 Montana Statewide Elk Management Plan Draft
Mr. Northrup, Mr. McDonald and Mr. Wakeling:
On behalf of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, we offer these comments in response to the 2023 Montana Statewide Elk Management Plan Draft.
Our Chapter consists of roughly 3,000 dues-paying members and tens of thousands of supporters in Montana. We care deeply about quality wildlife habitat, public access, and equitable, fair-chase opportunities to hunt elk. We approach elk management with an eye on maintaining the public trust, on fairly allocating the state's resource, and using public hunting during the general, socially acceptable season as the primary form of elk management. We also come with a sincere goal of listening to all interests and stakeholders to help find better paths forward. We have the utmost respect for private property rights and believe landowners should be incentivized to participate in cooperative elk management.
We also believe in the “North American Model of Wildlife Conservation” which has proven to be the world’s most successful method to restore, manage and safeguard our fish and wildlife. The North American model states that wildlife is an international resource which is to be held in the public trust for all citizens, scientific management is the proper means for wildlife conservation, every person has an equal opportunity to participate in hunting and fishing, wildlife shall be allocated according to the democratic rule of law, there shall be no commerce in dead wildlife, and wildlife may only be killed for legitimate, non-frivolous purposes.
By following these principles, we can and should incentivize participation in equitable elk management, however we should not grant exclusive access to our wildlife – elk – as a bargaining chip or incentive.
With that, here are our comments on the EMP:
1) We support regular updates and evaluations. First, thank you for taking this on. With changes to land ownerships, public land security habitat, droughts, private land development, hunter pressure, and shifting herd populations and distributions, twenty years has proven too long to go without updating the EMP. Allowing the plan to be updated, with evaluations scheduled every five years, can help ensure that we don’t find ourselves operating with a dusty, 20-year-old plan once again down the road. We support that adjustment and inclusion in the new EMP, and we’d ask that updates become requirements at least every 12 years.
2) We support the raising of objectives - now called goals - in many districts in the eastern half of the state. Using a three-year average rather than just yearly counts to decide if we’re at, above or below objectives or goals seems like a prudent change.
One district in the western part of the state that we’d like to bring attention to is in HD 215. We appreciate the Department’s willingness to increase goals in the unit that includes the Spotted Dog Wildlife Management Area, a productive piece of publicly accessible land that was private when the 2005 EMP was written. Recognition of land ownership changes like these - and the added tolerance they create - are necessary.
However, we’d like to see a more transparent outline on how elk objectives/goals are determined, and we appreciate that the Department has signaled their intent to do just that moving forward under Objective 1: "Resolve disagreement about population objectives and how they are set and implemented."
3) We support the seven objectives, 20 goals, and numerous measures and strategies outlined to shape the statewide management direction. These objectives and identified ways to get there represent a holistic approach to elk management in Montana by recognizing the many stakeholders and the various issues facing our elk herds today.
Specifically, we’d like to highlight the need for improved hunter behavior and ethics, maximizing the use of the general season as the primary management tool (thereby reducing the need for additional hunts), the importance of hunter access to elk, regulating the use of technology and maintaining fair-chase principles, and the benefits of strengthened hunter-landowner relations.
However, as FWP wisely pointed out, "at times, certain goals and the strategies necessary to accomplish them may be in conflict with other goals and strategies." This is where a transparent, public process must come into play.
4) We commend the department for looking at more than just population size and we’re intrigued by some of the new metrics the new EMP will use to measure success, including goals around elk distribution, agricultural impact, and recreational hunting. Until we see how these new metrics play out it’s hard for us to outright support or oppose these changes. For example, we can see how managing for ag impacts can be beneficial, but we can also see how it might put into question elk as an equitable resource held in public trust. As with much of the EMP, the language is vague while the implementation, impacts and prioritization remain to be seen. And as we stated above, how FWP decides which competing goals and strategies become priorities must include a transparent, public process.
5) We appreciate the noticeable emphasis on public lands elk habitat, the importance of migration corridors, and the increased use of refuge areas by elk; we’re glad FWP is taking a close look at these related issues, and we encourage even more attention and research on motorized routes, seasonal use restrictions, big game migration routes, security habitat on public lands, and the impacts of growing recreational pressure on elk distributions. We recognize that when it comes to land and travel management practices on federal public lands, the Department may have limited influence, but increased research by the Department can be applied more broadly. Additionally, there are ways the Department can proactively address many of these issues on state-owned and private lands using tools like Habitat Montana, the Wildlife Habitat Improvement Program, or the newly created Conservation Lease Program.
However, for as much as we appreciate and support certain parts of the new EMP, we also have serious concerns about other parts of the EMP.
6) We believe the Antlered Harvest Matrix is problematic. On page 56, the EMP states that "under circumstances where an HD is chronically and significantly over the stated population size goal and is using limited either-sex permits or limited bull permits, FWP will propose to allow a brow-tined-bull or any bull on a General Elk License regulation type."
This will not help achieve goals, but rather make doing so more difficult; it seems like the EMP agrees, as it elsewhere states, "liberalized hunting pressure on elk using public lands may result in increased use of refuge areas by elk. If elk that occupy publicly accessible areas are consistently hunted more frequently and thus experiencing increased harvest, that segment of the elk population may be reduced, although inaccessible elk numbers may increase.”
If lowering populations is the goal, then harvests should aggressively target cows on private lands. And there are already ample tools to harvest cow elk and incentivize public access. For example, in most of thes areas above population goals, hunters can already kill up to three elk per year, and hunt for six months; landowners can employ damage hunts, enroll in Block Management and earn up to $50,000 per year, or allow public crossing for tax breaks or payments up to $15,000 annually via two other programs. Plus, landowners currently get at least 15% of permits; and if that’s not enough, they can get a permit outside of the draw, so long as they allow for just three public hunters.
Our fear is that landowners and outfitters with large swaths of exclusive access would be less likely to work to meet objectives with this change, instead deciding to allow elk herds to grow or stay where they are so highly valuable bull tags become more readily available. We would not be incentivizing the right behavior to achieve population goals; we would be making the problem worse.
This change is very similar to HB 417 brought by Rep. Kassmier (R-Fort Benton) during the 2021 session. Montanans, recognizing that, among other concerns, this change would open the floodgates to nonresident hunting pressure in these areas, loudly objected this legislation; the sponsor withdrew the bill before it even had a hearing. In other words, this is not popular among Montana hunters.
Not only will this approach be unpopular and fail to solve the stated problem, but it will also make accomplishing the new objective (detailed by FWP under 'provide public elk recreation opportunities’) nearly impossible. Specifically, the goal to 'provide opportunity to harvest mature bulls' with the measure of success of a '3-year average of bulls harvested on either-sex permit with 6 or more points on one alters is 50% or more,' that goal and measure of success will be largely unachievable if these areas are moved to general tags.
Statistics quoted in the EMP backs our concerns: "A landowner survey conducted by FWP found that free public hunting access for bull elk on private land also decreased from 4.6 million acres to 4.3 million acres (7% decrease) from 2015–2019, whereas free public hunting access for cow elk remained relatively stable at 5.1 to 5.2 million acres (~1% increase)." In other words, by moving from an area with limited bull opportunities and unlimited cow tags to unlimited bull tags, we’re likely to see a decrease in public hunting access.
Access is key here, not tag manipulations. But don’t take our word for it. Again, from the EMP: “Providing some level of hunter access across public and private lands will be necessary to manage elk population numbers and distribution."
7) How should inaccessible elk be counted? The new EMP abandons the consideration of inaccessible elk. The 2005 Elk Plan contained a provision allowing the department to not count inaccessible elk. Inaccessible elk are a real and growing problem to elk management and the new EMP should give the department the option to address the issue. Ignoring inaccessible elk can balloon herd counts, lead to more liberal tag allocations, and put added pressure on the accessible elk, thereby pushing them onto inaccessible properties, making the problem even worse. The 2005 verbiage wisely recognized this predicament but needed better definitions around both ‘inaccessible elk’ and ‘public hunting’ to be implemented. This language is worth keeping and better defining rather than removing, and we strongly encourage the Department to add this back in to the new EMP.
If this conundrum is left unaddressed, and some landowners continue to refuse to cooperate in elk management, then the downward spiral of effective management will continue. This will leave inaccessible private lands with problematic concentrations of elk, while publicly accessible lands become a big-game wasteland.
8) We need mandatory reporting. The EMP mentions nothing about the need for mandatory reporting. We’re currently missing a lot of needed inputs in these discussions that could be gathered from mandatory reporting, things like what weapon did you use and in what season? When, specifically, did you harvest? Were you hunting public, private, or publicly accessible private? And more. Good management decisions require good data. FWP’s new mobile app would be far more convenient, cost-effective, and efficient at collecting mandatory reporting data than expensive phone call reporting months after the hunting season concludes.
In closing, we appreciate the Department's comprehensive efforts to address elk management in Montana. The board and staff of Montana BHA look forward to continuing to participate in future opportunities to shape effective and equitable management plans for our public wildlife held in public trust.
Kevin Farron, Regional Policy Manager, Backcountry Hunters & Anglers
John Sullivan, Chairman, Montana Chapter of BHA
Thomas Baumeister, Vice Chair, Montana Chapter of BHA
Jake Schwaller, Eastern Montana Conservation Leader, Montana Chapter of BHA
Doug Krings, Central Montana Board Member, Montana Chapter of BHA