Two bills that would give counties more control over big-game populations are being opposed by sporting groups and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton, submitted House Bills 375 and 376 to allow more local control over impacts from deer, elk and antelope that forage on agricultural land. HB375 would make FWP reimburse landowners for crop damage; HD376 would allow counties to present plans to FWP to lethally remove big game in counties, similar to Helena’s ongoing effort to trap and kill deer within the city limits.
Ballance said she’s not trying to take away FWP’s authority to manage big game. However, she said her Ravalli County constituents are frustrated.
“My bills are intended to give farmers and ranchers some relief from the deer damage they’re experiencing,” Ballance said. “… I’m here to tell you this is a serious problem. It’s been talked about for 30 years and it’s not gone away. The remedies are not working.”
Ravalli County ranchers testified at two separate hearings on the bills as to the negative impacts elk, deer and antelope are having on their operations.
“We are asking to give more local input to wildlife related problems,” Jay Meyer told the House Agricultural Committee hearing testimony on HB375. “Livestock producers have the ability to protect their property from predators … but hay and grass crop providers have a distinct disadvantage to control predators from their crops. We need lethal means to control pests. Deer are consumers and competitors of domestic animals.”
Others added that elk often defecate on hay that they haven’t eaten, rendering it useless for livestock.
“They don’t eat a little hay, they eat a lot of hay then urinate and defecate on the hay. Cattle and horses will not eat it afterward,” said Jan Wisniewski. “Nobody minds feeding them a little, but then the farmer has to pay to haul the bad stuff out of there.”
Opponents of the bill countered that landowners already have numerous tools — like fencing with the aid of FWP, the use of noisemakers or late season hunts — to remove big game where there are problems. They added that the idea of using sportsmens’ dollars to pay for crop damage isn’t a good use of the money.
“Why are hunters paying for those losses?” said Vito Quatraro of the Montana Sportsmen's Alliance. “Why not go to the general fund for the money?”
Ken McDonald, head of the FWP Wildlife Division, added that a recent Supreme Court lawsuit stated that when people acquire property in Montana, they do so knowing that wild game will be present. He added that they estimate they would lose about $18 million in federal funding if the money is diverted for crop damage.
The Agriculture Committee is expected to take action on the bill Thursday.
Similar concerns over game damage were voiced at the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks hearing on HB376, and they asked for the ability to proactively remove big game, particularly deer.
“It’s a good tool to have in the tool box, and I would like to have it available throughout the county,” said Brian Rouse of Hamilton. “We’re not insulting FWP, but bringing it in line with local government needs.”
He and other ranchers added that the FWP Commission would have final say on whether a county could implement a plan to remove a certain number of deer or other big game, and they also proposed that the venison be given to food banks so it doesn’t look like an extended hunting season
The bill’s opponents, however, said that giving each county that ability could bring on a slew of problems, as well as 56 ways of managing big game without the lengthy process used by the FWP Commission when setting hunting seasons and quotas.
“The big difference when doing this for a city and a county — and Helena is the best example — the public hunting and other traditional management tools are not available like they are in a county,” said Quentin Kujala, the FWP wildlife management section coordinator. “… The bill allows control of game species based on economic impacts, but that’s broad and undefined. In Helena the deer were eating flowers; I’m not sure that constitutes economic impact.”
It’s not clear whether the FWP Committee will vote on the measure at its Thursday meeting.