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Hunter, conservation groups push to be heard in Montana elk herd lawsuit

FWP
Posted at 11:32 AM, Jun 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-23 13:32:10-04

HELENA — On Thursday, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is set to propose wolf regulations for next hunting season, however opportunity for public comment will be reduced compared to prior years.

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission expects to make a decision on wolf regulations at its August meeting. The new condensed timeline between proposal and adoption of new regulations for Montana FWP comes as Democratic legislators and some hunting and conservation groups question whether FWP will circumvent public participation in elk herd management by settling another lawsuit with United Property Owners of Montana, a private landowner advocacy group.

The mistrust stems from Montana FWP’s decision to settle a lawsuit with United Property Owners of Montana over the reintroduction of wild bison herds to public lands, according to a June 8 letter sent by Democratic lawmakers to Gov. Greg Gianforte. In March 2021, the Gianforte administration agreed to delay any potential wild bison reintroduction for 10 years as part of the settlement. Democratic lawmakers have asked for future settlements to be presented to the public prior to agreement.

When asked about its response to the letter, Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office said it does not comment on ongoing litigation.

The new lawsuit between United Property Owners of Montana and Montana FWP began in April when the private property owners sued FWP and the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission for not culling elk populations in the state. Elk herds have damaged private land as a result, the group said in its lawsuit filed in Fergus County District Court.

Seven different conservation and sportsmen groups filed to intervene in the case in order to represent the interests of hunters and the public. Like state Democrats, the conservation and hunter organizations said the previous settlement with United Property Owners of Montana appeared to be part of a realignment in favor of private property rights above public access.

Montana FWP opposed the intervention of the hunting associations to and said the department planned to “vigorously defend their lawful actions.”

Montana Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Byorth said he couldn’t comment on the merits of the lawsuit as he a named defendant in the lawsuit brought against FWP and the Fish and Wildlife Commission. However, he did say Montana’s wildlife management program is one of the most successful in the U.S.

“And the fact that people are claiming there’s too many elk or too many deer is just evidence of how successful we are," Byorth said. "What this lawsuit challenges is the fundamental model that we have used for nearly a hundred years successfully to restore wildlife populations that were devastated in the early 20th century.”