OPINION: Can Landowners Really Not Hunt Their Own Land?

With all this madness surrounding elk management in Montana lately, and with likely more to come in the days ahead, we keep hearing the director at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Hank Worsech, explaining his rationale for the flurry of changes proposed by the department. His repeated line of reasoning goes something like this: why would a landowner open up land to the public hunter, if he or she can’t even get a permit to hunt elk on their own land? You can hear this for yourself in a recent Hunt Talk podcast where host Randy Newberg talks with the director for nearly two hours about the latest elk policy proposals.

What is implied here is that elk refers to bull elk as cow elk may be hunted by simply purchasing a license or by applying for a permit with really high odds of drawing (may soon be unlimited). On the surface, what Dir. Worsech is saying here does seem like a reasonable thing to call out and request. We believe most would agree, at least conceptually, that a landowner who provides quality elk habitat should have some opportunity to benefit from having elk often year-round on their property. This is part of why Dir. Worsech’s saying resonates with folks and gets repeated over and over again, though it appears unexamined.

We addressed this with an analysis of the 2021 license drawing data compiled by FWP and made available online. We asked: How many people apply through the drawing and what are the odds of drawing a bull permit? And specifically, what are the odds of landowners drawing a bull permit valid on their own land plus the larger district in which the land is located. Again, much of the FWP proposals before us are advanced by Dir. Worsech to remedy this perceived situation of landowners being unable to hunt their own land.

Know that FWP already sets aside 15 percent of each hunting district quota for elk licenses and permits for landowners owning, or contracting to purchase, 640 or more acres of land used by elk in that hunting district. So when landowners apply for a bull permit (or what is technically referred to as an either-sex permit), they may apply either by qualifying under the elk landowner preference program or in the way any other hunter does. Qualifying landowners may delegate preference to a member of the immediate family member, a partner, or an employee. All of this seems pretty straightforward.

After Montana BHA board member Thomas Baumeister ran the numbers, here’s what we found: In 2021, 50,814 individuals entered the drawing to compete for 11,120 either-sex (bull) permits in Montana – the bulk of these are comprised of permits that are valid only during the archery-only season and include the much-debated 900-20 archery permits that are valid in multiple districts. Collectively, these permits comprise the 38 hunting districts in Montana in which limited-entry permits are offered and include the license types ending in -20 and -21, which may be familiar to those who apply for permits; most are found in FWP regions 4 and 5. If everyone had an equal chance (not taking bonus points into account for this initial analysis), the odds of drawing would be about 22 percent – that is, on average, the chance of drawing one of these permits is about one in five. Now, let’s dig a little deeper.

Since FWP administers the landowner preference system, they track hunters and landowners separately and further divide each into resident and non-resident to reflect their residency status. So we end up with four distinct applicant types: resident landowner, non-resident landowner, resident hunter, and nonresident hunter. The following table shows the average drawing odds for each type averaged across all 38 districts for which permits are available. Note that all nonresidents -- landowners and hunters -- first must draw an elk license before they can apply for a permit which is capped at 17,000.

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What jumps out immediately is that landowners who apply under the landowner preference program have a much greater chance of drawing permits. Roughly speaking, landowners, both resident and non-resident alike, have a fourfold greater chance of drawing a permit than non-landowning hunters, both resident and nonresident. While the odds for landowners are not 100 percent in all districts, they are pretty darn good compared to those of hunters. When you look at the actual numbers, there were a whopping eight (8) non-resident landowners who drew an elk license and then applied for landowner permits and didn’t get them; and there were only 146 resident landowners who were unsuccessful in the draw (conversely, there were 39,540 hunters who failed to draw). This is hardly evidence to support the claim by Director Worsech that the majority of landowners are unable to draw elk permits to hunt their own land.

But not only do the drawing odds for landowners approach that of being just about guaranteed and available year after year - something most hunters can only dream of - but some districts don’t even have enough landowners currently applying for these permits to reach the 15 percent set-aside quota. In other words, in those units, any landowner applying for a landowner permit is getting one and other landowners could have as well, at least in 2021. All they had to do was apply.

These data seem to refute Dir. Worsech’s often repeated claim that landowners can’t even hunt their property themselves. A more accurate statement might be that landowners’ buddies, extended family, neighbors and - most importantly - paying outfitter clients may not get to hunt said properties every year, but that’s certainly not what the director is saying here, and that’s an entirely different conversation about whether that fits into the equitable model of wildlife management and whether that warrants wholesale changes to license allocations currently being proposed by FWP.

While things have gotten a bit crazy recently over how to manage elk in Montana, we all need to be careful not to add fuel to the fire by making assertions which may sound good by appealing to claims of fairness and equity but may prove to be misleading. These statements not only foul the wellspring of goodwill but hint at an administration set on further dividing hunters and landowners by failing to make the community aware of the tools and incentives already available in our toolkit awaiting widespread deployment.

Along those lines, we encourage the department to reach out to the landowning community to let them know that hunters and the department do in fact value the contributions landowners make to ensure a healthy and robust population of elk in our state, which is why 15 percent of permits are set aside for them already. Additionally, landowners also have other tools like the 454 agreements (that the Wilks made famous recently) which provide elk permits in exchange for limited public opportunity, and there are a plethora of other programs available through the department that offer financial compensation for those providing public access and/or opportunity. And if landowners have legitimate elk problems on their properties, we also have the hunt roster damage hunts and extremely liberal elk B shoulder season opportunities ready to be applied across Montana.

The permits are there. The landowner incentives are there. The management tools are there too. It’s time we use them instead of flipping the whole system on its head to satisfy some 150 landowners who didn’t draw permits in 2021.

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