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Montana FWP changes course from controversial elk hunting proposal for central and eastern hunting districts

Bull Elk in Montana
Posted at 4:02 PM, Dec 14, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-15 11:13:23-05

HELENA — The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission has pulled back on a controversial elk hunting change.

The original proposal from the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Director’s Office would have seen different hunting regulations between public and private landowners in eight hunting districts located in Central and Southeastern Montana. On private lands, hunting for bull elk would have only needed a general license, yet hunters on public land would still have to draw a tag in order to hunt bulls.

At the Dec. 14 Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting, commissioners moved forward with a plan that would not separate public and private land hunting regulations for elk, but increase the number of available hunting permits in those districts by 50 percent and move archery to unlimited general license.

The affected hunting districts are 411, 417, 426, 535, 590, 702, 704 and 705. The proposal will open for public comment before being presented to the Fish and Wildlife Commission at their Feb. 4 meeting for a final decision.

FWP Director Hank Worsech defended the original proposal at the meeting as a way to address herd numbers and said he had heard from private landowners that were frustrated they couldn’t draw a tag for their own property. He recognized his office’s proposal caused a “firestorm” with a lot of pushback from the public. He intends to create a 17 person committee to discuss the issue.

Critics of the original plan said it incentivized hunting as a business industry that would encourage private landowners to not allow public hunters on their property.

Supporters said the elk herds in those districts were overpopulated on private lands and needed to be more aggressively managed to meet the state’s herd population objectives.

Commissioner Pat Byorth said at the Tuesday commission meeting that he believed the state’s objectives for herd populations in those areas are outdated, while noting that only hunter access is going to reduce the elk herds.

“The one element, the one variable that stands out that isn’t addressed is when you get access for the hunters to the elk herds, hunters are very efficient at reducing those herds,” said Byorth. “I see nothing in this proposal that gets us there.”

“Once again I would reiterate, we’re trying something different,” said Worsech in response to Byorth. “This has been many years of doing the same thing and we know what is going to come out of this.”

Worsech noted he believes action needs to be taken by the Montana Legislature to address the issue, pointing to House Bill 505 which died in process.

HB 505, sponsored by Republican Speaker of the Montana House of Representatives Wylie Galt, proposed the creation of a landowner-sponsored nonresident elk-only combination license that would have allowed landowners to sponsor up to 10 non-residents to hunt on their property. The failed legislation would have also created a “bonus point system” where “an applicant who has purchased more bonus points more chances in a drawing to receive a license, tag, or permit over an applicant who has purchased fewer bonus points.”

The majority of public comments at the meeting took aim at the original proposal for being suggested in the first place, and criticism of the new FWP leadership under Gov. Gianforte and how they determine objectives for hunting areas.

State Sen. Brad Molnar, R-Laurel, told the commission that the current proposed plan that just increases the number of hunting permits does nothing to address an objective of elk herd numbers, but will just further push elk from public lands to private lands during the hunting season.

“If you’re not willing to address the fact that the over-commercialization of wildlife is the problem, and they don’t want more objectives they want more elk. Then in the after-season, their elk go graze public lands and then are driven back on private lands where they can sell for $20,000,” said Molnar. “The problem is, for this particular moment, that Gov. Gianforte appointed and the Senate confirmed an extremely slanted commission and director. And I expect nothing good to come out of your efforts for the next four years.”