Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is looking at a handful of new strategies to better manage elk populations and improve quality hunting opportunities on public lands. FWP will propose these strategies to the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission at its Dec. 14 meeting.
In recent years, Montana has seen a dramatic increase in elk populations in many hunting districts around the state. Currently, 14 hunting districts are at least 200 percent above population objectives. Data also show an overcrowding of elk populations on private land, limiting opportunities for public land hunters.
“What we know is the status quo isn’t working,” said FWP Director Hank Worsech. “So, we’re going to propose a few new strategies we think can finally help us make progress in addressing the problem, both for hunters and for landowners.”
Required by law to achieve population objectives set by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, FWP proposes targeted provisions to fulfill the statutory requirement of managing to population objective, address the increasing impacts of high elk populations on Montana farmers and ranchers, and improve quality opportunities for hunters. Those numerical objectives are identified in the current elk management plan.
The targeted provisions for 14 hunting districts with limited permits and over population objectives are:
In all 14 hunting districts, FWP proposes to remove some or all of the limited either-sex permits.
In eight of those hunting districts, where problems with distribution, population and access tend to be most acute, FWP is proposing to retain the limited either-sex permits but make them valid only on public land. In most of these districts, the permit quotas are proposed to be half of the 2021 quotas. The hunting districts proposed for this structure are: 411, 417, 426, 535 (newly proposed for 2022), 590, 702, 704 and 705.
The proposal would also make a general elk license valid for either-sex elk only on private land in these eight districts. This would include the general archery and firearm seasons as well as the muzzleloader season. Early and late antlerless seasons would remain the same, and only be for antlerless elk in the districts in which they occur.
All of FWP’s proposed hunting regulations are undergoing review as part of the agency’s regular, biennial season-setting process, and are subject to commission approval. If the commission approves the proposals, there will be a 30-day public comment opportunity.
“We can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. We have to try something different. This proposal is a new strategy we can implement for two years and see if it has the desired effect – more elk harvest, better elk availability on public lands, fewer landowner conflicts, and elk at population objective,” Worsech said. “In some hunting districts, we have broad public tolerance or outright support for limited permits, and we want to keep those in place.”
By having different season types in multiple areas with similar circumstances – over population elk herds and limited either-sex permits – FWP will be able to analyze which strategy is most effective at decreasing elk numbers and moving more on to public land.
In addition to this specific season proposal, a new elk plan is being developed with the help of guiding principles identified by an external working group and endorsed by the commission. The process for this new plan will include extensive public commenting opportunities.
The Private Land/Public Wildlife council will also review all FWP access programs and revisit elk hunting access agreements, which provide access to private land in exchange for elk licenses and permits for the landowner.
Worsech is also looking to pull together an additional citizen group to explore more ways to address issues around hunter access to private land and landowner preferences. The goal for the group will be to provide tangible recommendations FWP and the commission can implement.
Also, with the availability of more federal Pittman-Robertson funds, FWP is exploring a three-fold increase of funding for its access programs.
“It’s time for people to bring their best ideas forward, and I want to hear from them,” Worsech said. “Don’t just tell us what you don’t like. I want to hear your ideas to improve the situation. I hope we can all see and realize a better day for landowners, hunters and the elk resource itself.”