Privatizing Public Elk

Photos: Erik Peterson

"The movement for the conservation of wildlife and the larger movement for the conservation of all our natural resources are essentially democratic in spirit, purpose, and method.”
– Theodore Roosevelt (1916)

 

By Thomas Baumeister

 

As Americans, we intuitively understand that some things in life deserve to be protected for our collective benefit, such as the air we breathe and the water we drink. In Montana, this also includes fish and wildlife, along with the opportunity to hunt and fish.

Public ownership is at the heart of the U.S. system of natural resource management, where wild animals belong to the state in which they reside. State ownership is motivated by the desire to conserve wildlife as a renewable resource for the benefit of the state’s citizens.

Central to this concept is public trust, a social and legal construct that recognizes certain things in life are so valuable that they should not be owned exclusively by some individuals but by everyone equally. Under the public trust principle, the people charge the government with the duty to oversee and manage the wildlife on our collective behalf.

For more than a century now, Montana’s elk have been managed this way. Specifically, the state fish and wildlife agency has the duty to manage the time, place and manner in which public elk may be accessed by hunters in a biologically sustainable and socially equitable fashion – with no one having greater privileges than anyone else. As so defined, the state cannot abdicate its responsibility nor parcel out the elk trust.

Nevertheless, the tug of war between private and public interests intensified recently in Montana, as they vie for supremacy to shape how elk are managed – specifically, who gets to hunt bull elk and who doesn’t. Hunters, outfitters, resident landowners and, increasingly, out-of-state trophy ranch owners all claim their stake in elk; yet their interests often pull in opposite directions with shrinking common ground left to build on.

In Montana, we’ve held firm to the idea that the opportunity to hunt elk must be available to the average person, no matter their social or economic status: one only should need a hunting license or permit to be eligible to participate.

Across the West, access to elk has become the latest battleground in the nation’s growing tension between the have and have nots. It is no longer about tweaking elk permit numbers; rather, it is fundamentally about who gets to hunt elk. What’s playing out here in the wilds of Montana’s hinterlands is akin to a culture war. The Treasure State is quickly turning into the playground for the nation’s wealthy and politically connected elite.

The Montana chapter of BHA has been at the forefront of this battle, weighing in on those debates and explaining what’s really at stake. We’ve been showing Montanans what’s going on and how we can prevent it. The stakes could not be higher. And it’s not just elk; we see the same trend occurring with trout, deer, bighorn sheep and mountain lion, along with other species we value as public land anglers and hunters.

The recent allocation of trophy elk tags to the Wilks Brothers – Texas oil billionaires who own a sweeping swath of some 300,000 acres in central Montana – flirts dangerously close to taking elk out of the public trust and thrusting it into the hands of private property owners simply because of land ownership; albeit there was some nominal public hunting access granted in exchange. We absolutely believe that landowners should be compensated for opening public access, but coveted trophy bull elk should not be the bargaining chip. This privatization will only further incentivize landowners to block and limit public access rather than encourage it – history has proven this to be the case over and over again.

Normally, in Montana, if you want the chance to hunt elk in the hunting district where these lands are located, you must enter the public lottery and hope to draw a coveted elk tag. This may not give a hunter the option to hunt those areas every year, but it gives everyone an equitable chance of drawing. And 15% of these tags are already set aside as an allocation for private landowners. This random draw system is in line with the public trust principle for the government to create equitable and sustainable opportunities. By allocating elk permits over and above these quotas only for those fortunate enough to acquire enough land sends a clear message that some people have more right to hunt our public elk than others. We disagree.

In Montana, we’ve held firm to the idea that the opportunity to hunt elk must be available to the average person, no matter their social or economic status: one only should need a hunting license or permit to be eligible to participate. That opportunity must be equally available and not predicated on any terms or conditions that are not universally applied among all hunters; nor does anyone hold an a priori or privileged status in terms of owning a greater share of “our elk.” In other words, we shouldn’t be picking favorites based on guided hunters or DIY, wealth, prestige, land ownership or anything else for that matter.

“The opportunity to hunt is yours by virtue of your citizenship,” proclaimed the late Jim Posewitz, longtime Montana elk hunter and conservation giant. When Posewitz wrote those words, he was referring to what made elk hunting and conservation emerge triumphantly in North America. In large, what kept elk from slipping out of physical existence – and our collective consciousness – more than a century ago, and what keeps them around today, is that the species is held in public trust and not permitted to be privatized, carved up or monetized. This is the essence of the American conservation ethic, which stands proudly in defiance of the King’s deer in feudal Europe.

Many view state fish and wildlife agencies as holding sweeping powers and unfettered autonomy to uphold the public trust in elk. But this is not actually the case. The specific policies that matter most to elk hunters, such as the what, when, where and how of hunting elk, are not actually up to the Montana state agency to decide. Rather, this duty falls squarely on elected and appointed officials in their respective offices: the governor (who often appoints the agency director and commissioners), the legislature, the citizen-oversight commissions and other executive committees. Collectively, these are the decision-makers referred to as trustees, whereas the state agency is simply the trust manager. This arrangement is what makes elk subject to, and at the heart of, politics – including power grabs and political favors. In many ways, bull elk have become political pawns as access to them is sought after, highly valuable and easily monetized.

Since it would be impractical to consult every citizen each time we need to make decisions – for example, who gets an elk license – we’ve instructed the state and its officials to do this on our collective behalf. This mandate is precisely why trustees are elected or appointed to be held accountable for their actions and to be ultimately aligned with the will of the people. We expect our trustees to be honest, transparent, fair and impartial, and we reserve the right to take corrective measures if necessary. We can vote them – or the elected officials who appointed them – out. As far as the trust manager, the state fish and wildlife agency, that accountability is located within the principles of public governance (good government) such as administrative process, public involvement and transparent decision-making.

It’s crucial that we remember this, but more importantly, that they do, too, both the trustee (elected and appointed officials) and trust managers (technical experts and administrative bureaucrats).

This, in a nutshell, is how BHA is approaching this and why the Montana Chapter has been so active in the process.

It is up to hunters – elk hunters in Montana, bear hunters in Washington, deer hunters in Kansas, mountain lion hunters in Colorado, etc. – to remember that our elected/appointed officials are not actually required to govern in any particular way. In fact, they are under no obligation to abide by any formal guiding principles, and thus may pursue matters to commercialize and privatize Montana’s wildlife. It’s up to us to be vigilant. Advocacy matters. Voting matters. Your voice matters.

It is up to hunters – elk hunters in Montana, bear hunters in Washington, deer hunters in Kansas, mountain lion hunters in Colorado, etc. – to remember that our elected/appointed officials are not actually required to govern in any particular way. In fact, they are under no obligation to abide by any formal guiding principles, and thus may pursue matters to commercialize and privatize Montana’s wildlife. It’s up to us to be vigilant. Advocacy matters. Voting matters. Your voice matters.

Photos: Erik Peterson

 

In 2021, the Montana chapter and others led a charge that successfully defeated a legislative bill that would have issued transferable non-resident elk permits to landowners, allowing them to go to the highest out-of-state bidder. Since then, many similar proposals have been put forward, all poorly disguised as attempts to address elk populations but really are just further attempts to commercialize and privatize our wildlife. We’ve beat each one back, or significantly improved them, but we don’t expect the attacks to let up anytime soon. We cannot and will not be complacent. You shouldn’t either.

 

Guiding principles of our work at maintaining fair and equitable distribution among stakeholders:

  • Stand firm on no handouts, set-aside or privileged allocations to special interests without a commensurate benefit to the public trust
  • Demand publicly accessible and transparent decision-making
  • Request to always use the best science available
  • Select trustees who understand trustee obligations and are free of conflicts of interest and competing concerns
  • Hold trust administrators publicly accountable in the media
  • Encourage local and decentralized decision-making to counter centralized efforts by executives

So how do we as frontline members of BHA fight to uphold the principles of public trust and the equity in opportunity to access and hunt elk in Montana and in the West? In a nutshell, we have to be really good at what we do. Casual engagement simply won’t cut it.

 

There are certainly different ways and approaches; here we offer some things that have worked well for the Montana chapter.

  • Get involved early; let your intuition be your guide that something isn’t right
  • Understand an issue first before you react
  • Peel back the layers to really see what’s going on; follow the money
  • Surround yourself with people with different perspectives on an issue
  • Encourage honest and candid dialogue among your team members
  • Argue on public trust principles, not mere preference
  • Shape and control the narrative, be creative with communications
  • Be vigilant, don’t rest on your laurels – privatization is slow, insidious, and gradual
  • Build capacity within your ranks for a long drawn out battle
  • Fight like hell; yet be smart about your strategy. It’s better to be good than just reactionary as emotions resonate but don’t win by themselves.

 

The United States has been long cherished as the place where anyone can be a hunter no matter means or status. In the coming months and years, pay close attention to how your opportunity to hunt and fish is managed. If you witness your opportunities diminishing, hold your elected officials accountable – as they get to make the rules on the things we hold dearest.

 

Thomas Baumeister is the vice chair and capital leader for the Montana chapter of BHA. He worked for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks for two decades before joining the board of Montana BHA. He holds two masters and a Ph.D. in biology and wildlife biology and wears out a pair of boots each fall chasing elk and upland birds.

 

This article was originally published in the summer 2022 issue of Backcountry Journal. Join BHA today to support our efforts to keep wildlife public and get quarterly issues of Backcountry Journal in your mailbox.

About Thomas Baumeister

Capital Chapter Leader - Montana BHA; Executive Director - Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame; Board President - Orion -The Hunter's Institute