MT USFS Proposes Changes to Elk Security Habitat

The following is an article about BHA's efforts to address decisions impacting "security habitat" management for elk in Montana, original article available here.

Hunters want more involvement in plan to change elk security standards

A statewide hunting group is asking Helena National Forest officials to not make any changes to elk security standards until they begin a new open, public process that includes more involvement of state biologists, outside peer review of any proposed changes and more information on what’s being considered.

Greg Munther, chairman of The Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and a former district ranger on the Lolo National Forest, said his organization is concerned that changes being developed for the elk security standards on the Lincoln and Helena ranger districts will actually make elk feel less secure and push them onto private lands.

“I’m a dedicated elk hunter and very concerned about the proposal that’s yet undescribed by the Helena National Forest to change the elk security standards,” Munther said on Tuesday. “We want to make sure they are aware of the implications of what they’re doing.”

He and others are frustrated with the lack of information from the Helena forest on specifics of what they’re considering, and want to know what’s being considered.

“They say nothing and just move forward, and nobody can get engaged in the process,” said Gayle Joslin, a retired wildlife biologist with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and a member of the Helena Hunters and Anglers. “We are concerned and up in arms.”

Helena National Forest officials said they’re going slowly in order to ensure they can tailor the standards to local elk herds and to the landscape. Kevin Riordan, the forest supervisor, added that they listen to members of the public, read letters sent to them on issues and provide for opportunities to comment at various times during the process.

“I’m sorry they feel like they’re being left out,” Riordan said. “Giving the public something to comment on is our starting point; otherwise we start talking philosophies and that will not get us anywhere.

“… I know there’s a perception out there that we have our minds made up and don’t listen, but historically after public comments are received it seems we never end up at the same point we started from.”

The Helena and Lincoln ranger districts are considering changing their methods for assessing elk security standards as part of their travel planning process, since roads can impact elk herds. Officials say that evolving conditions on the ground — wildfires, the mountain pine beetle epidemic, private land ownership and road densities — are contributing to the need for changes in measuring just how secure elk feel on the landscape, especially during hunting season.

They add that other eastern forests in Montana where elk are prevalent also are looking at the basic elk security standard.

But the Helena National Forest also has lost a number of lawsuits filed over timber sales after opponents pointed out that the federal agency wasn’t in compliance with its own forest plan regarding elk security, and people are voicing concerns that officials are planning to loosen the restrictions so they won’t lose any more lawsuits on that basis.

Munther and Joslin said that between timber sales and roads, the Helena forest is so cut up that elk have nowhere to hide. One standard under consideration by the Forest Service of a “secure habitat” is something that’s larger than 250 acres and more than half a mile away from a road, a standard used on forests west of the Continental Divide.

Munther advocates something closer to blocks of 25,000 to 50,000 acres free of motorized routes during hunting season so that the center is at least three miles from a motorized route. He notes that if a “serious” elk hunter knows there is a 250-acre patch of unbroken timber habitat only half a mile from a road, most hunters would happily walk to such “secure” elk habitat.

“Three miles distance can be walked on a closed road system or trail in about an hour, depending on topography,” Munther said. “Such blocks of elk security should be established across the Helena, in each elk habitat unit, as determined by FWP.

“Given the high demand for elk hunting in Montana, the high rate of participation by Montana citizens, the importance of elk hunting as a driver to the Montana economy, we feel strongly that elk hunting economic values can compete with any timber harvest or motorized recreation that would detract from elk security.”

Helena forest biologists Denise Pengeroth and Brent Costain say that while large tracts of non-motorized land without timber sales may be possible in places like the Bob Marshall or Scapegoat wilderness areas, it’s just not possible in other areas, especially where major roads dissect the forest like on MacDonald or Flescher passes.

“That 250 acres and the half-mile from road standard is just a beginning point,” Pengeroth added. “We’re trying to leave it up to local land managers and biologists to tailor that to local elk herds. We have to look at what’s adjacent to the forest too — if it’s private land, if hunting’s not allowed or if it’s in block management — and what the forest is like there. We have to be landscape focused.

“The question we also need to ask is how the elk are doing and if they’re reaching FWP management objectives.”

Munther said that in addition, he wants the standard to ensure that the quality and quantity of elk security results in the majority of elk remaining on public lands during the hunting season, or until winter conditions force them to lower lands. He’s also requesting that the trend toward reduced density of forest canopy be addressed and compensated for by the reduction of motorized access route density.

“Montana Chapter Backcountry Hunters and Anglers requests full participation as this process moves forward,” Munther wrote in his letter to Riordan. “We request we, as well as all other interested parties, be immediately informed of any elk security standard proposal being considered. We also believe it appropriate that the public wildlife and hunting interest groups meet with your leadership immediately on this issue.”

Riordan said they’ve provided opportunities in the past for the groups to be involved, and that after they have something to present for comments — probably in January — that he’ll be happy to share that information.

“I did receive an invitation to speak to the Helena Hunters and Anglers, but I called them back and told them I wouldn’t be sure what to talk about because nothing has been prepared,” Riordan said. “January would be a better time, because then I could say ‘This is where we’re at.’”

About Caitlin Thompson