A group convened to recommend changes to Montana’s elk hunting and management concluded its work this week with a slate of recommendations ranging from enforcement of stricter penalties on trespassers to examining policies on predators and habitat.
The 14 recommendations from the Elk Management Citizen Advisory Group will now undergo legal and fiscal analysis before going out to the public for comment. As an advisory group, the 12-member body does not have the power to enact policy — that lies with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Legislature. But FWP Director Hank Worsech has said the recommendations will be considered in concert with other advisory committees and an update to the state’s elk management plan as the state looks at potential regulation changes for elk.
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Worsech formed the group, made up of a mix of landowners or managers and hunters, earlier this year following a contentious season-setting process. The body drew the attention of many Montana hunters recently when it adopted a controversial recommendation that hunters choose between archery and firearm seasons with the goal of easing crowding on public lands.
Worsech, appearing at the last meeting, praised the group’s work as “free thinkers” that came forward with solutions despite receiving flack.
“I think you guys have done an amazing job,” he said.
During the group’s final meeting this week, members described a significant and largely negative response from hunters to choosing weapon and season. During discussion on potential revisions, members noted that the change would only apply to “A” licenses generally applicable to bull elk. The group adopted a small update to the recommendation, continuing to recommend FWP consider choosing a weapon and season, while offering a more broad assessment that the agency must tackle the issue of overcrowding.
Much of the final meeting was dedicated to a recommendation that FWP focus on “managing elk where they are not.”
Brought by Ian Wargo of Kalispell, the recommendation delves heavily into predator-prey dynamics and habitat quality. Wargo has been outspoken about declining populations of elk and other ungulates in northwest Montana, which he says has not only diminished hunting in his area, but is causing hunters to migrate to other parts of the state.
“I want to start a conversation that I feel like is not being had,” he said.
With the number of wolves growing in Northwest Montana since the early 2000s, hunting for elk has drastically declined, Wargo contends — FWP data shows a steady decrease in Region 1 elk harvest over the last two decades as well as a dip in hunter numbers. The area is also home to healthy populations of mountain lions and bears.
From 2000-2009, hunters harvested an average of about 1,500 elk across the region. From 2010-2019, that number dipped about 29% to 1,100 on average. Hunter numbers also dropped by about 800 decade-to-decade, but total days hunting increased by about 4,000.
While FWP has documented the decline, the agency has not quantified factors such as winter kill, loss of access or habitat changes versus predation. But for Wargo and many hunters, the link between predation and declines needs attention and action.
“Unless you saw how good elk and deer hunting was, it’s pretty tough to envision the change,” in northwest Montana, he said.
Wargo does not say there are too many predators, but argues that ratios of predators to prey have become an “unhealthy balance.” Higher prey numbers could support higher predator numbers, he notes.
The recommendation calls for better counting of both ungulates and predators, noting that some elk counts have not occurred for years. It also pushes for more habitat work, including potential efforts to move work onto federal lands. And the recommendation encourages FWP to consider more intensive predator management, such as easing some trapping restrictions, exploring aerial shooting of wolves by the agency and expanded black bear seasons.
Acknowledging that predator control is controversial, the group debated and ultimately removed some early parts of the proposal. Druska Kinkie of Pray cautioned that perception could feed calls to relist wolves as endangered.
“We have to be really careful, and FWP does too, in how they handle the predator population,” she said.
In addition to choosing a weapon and season, the group had previously passed recommendations calling for some changes to elk shoulder seasons and damage hunts and encouraging the development of local elk working groups.
In a more recent meeting, the group adopted an additional nine recommendations.
One recommendation calls for stricter penalties for both poor hunter and landowner behavior. The group agreed that stronger fines and penalties including loss of license should be used to deter trespassers, but also that landowners should face stiffer penalties if found blocking public roads or chasing hunters from public ground.
The group recommends development of a new access program that would allow landowners more control as well as technical assistance to connect with hunters. That could include requirements for an advanced hunter proficiency course or any other landowner stipulation, similar to a VRBO-style dashboard, Wargo, who carried the proposal, said.
The groups also suggests FWP look to changes to hunter safety with an emphasis on hunter ethics and making information more accessible.
FWP should hire a liaison to work with landowners, particularly for amenity landowners that may not fully understand hunting as a wildlife management tool, another recommendation states.
Various interest groups, with some FWP representation, should meet at least once a year if not more to work on issues, the next recommendation states.
The group further recommends that FWP work to improve the perception of how it works and collaborates with other agencies.
Finally, the group recommends development of more user-friendly data collection and public availability of data.
FWP staffer Deb O’Neill estimated the proposals could be released for public comment by the end of August.
Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.