A disagreement over elk management between hunters and Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks has entered the courtroom.
On Wednesday two Montana sporting groups filed a lawsuit against FWP and its commission in a Helena District Court seeking to halt late-spring killing of elk and to stop any fencing of elk from pastures in the Paradise Valley. The measures were proposed in an attempt to halt the spread of brucellosis from elk to cattle.
“We just felt like we’ve been left out of the loop entirely on this whole situation,” said Tony Schoonen of the Skyline Sportsmen’s Association in Butte.
The group and the Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club hired the Bozeman law firm of Goetz, Baldwin and Geddes to represent them in the action. A complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief was filed in District Court before Judge Mike Menahan of Helena. FWP had just received the lawsuit Wednesday afternoon, so officials had no comment.
The dispute centers on the Fish and Wildlife Commission’s 3-2 approval of a controversial plan at its April meeting, which many hunters opposed.
Brucellosis can cause pregnant cattle to abort. The disease is believed to be transferred when cattle come in contact with birthing material from an infected cow elk. Keeping the animals separate when elk are giving birth, then, is believed to be an effective tool to control outbreaks.
FWP envisioned keeping the animals separate in two new ways.
Under the plan, Paradise Valley ranchers could ask FWP to pay for fencing to keep elk and cattle separate in the spring when the chance of disease transmission is greatest. A written plan would be submitted by the landowner to FWP, which would open the proposal to public review. The fence would have to be taken down or made passable after the risk period was over.
FWP could also issue one kill permit allowing a landowner to shoot three male elk from May 1 through 15, the idea being to scare the animals away even though bull elk cannot spread the disease. The permits would have to be authorized by the area commissioner and regional supervisor.
So far, no landowner has submitted a proposed fencing plan or applied for a kill permit.
The measures proposed by FWP went against recommendations by a brucellosis citizen advisory panel, which had advocated for haystack fencing, nonlethal removal of elk and public education. The panel also recommended the creation of local advisory groups in what’s known as the Designated Surveillance Zone, an area in southwestern Montana surrounding Yellowstone National Park where elk have been exposed to brucellosis.
The measures adopted by the FW Commission were conceived by the Upper Yellowstone Watershed Group, which the sportsmen’s groups assert was comprised “almost entirely of Paradise Valley ranchers” and was therefore not diverse enough to represent all of those interested in the issue. After receiving complaints about the initial proposals from the public, the options were refined by FWP staff before approval by the commission.
“With each action, FWP and FWC have moved further away from the state Working Group’s original recommendations, increasingly emphasizing lethal management options and seemingly pursuing an unfeasible brucellosis eradication agenda, to the detriment of Montana’s wild elk population and at the expense of Montana’s sportsmen and taxpayers,” the complaint states.
Schoonen said the sporting groups are willing to work out a solution without going before a judge.
“I just talked to our attorney, and FWP wants to sit down with us and go over the options,” he said.
If FWP would retreat on lethal removal of elk and large landscape fencing, the suit could be dropped, Schoonen said.
“We’ll just have to sit down and see what they offer,” he said. “We don’t want our elk treated like bison.”
Otherwise, the suit seeks a declaration that FWP and the commission acted in dereliction of their duty to protect the public trust and that the elk plan should be dropped. The suit also asks that any future plan go through an EIS.
Further, the suit seeks confirmation that the state already has a program in place to compensate landowners for game damage and that the program requires landowners to provide public hunting access to qualify.
Montana has a zero-tolerance policy for bison that wander from Yellowstone National Park and outside buffer zones near Gardiner and West Yellowstone. Bison are hazed back into the park by Montana Department of Livestock personnel in the spring, although last year a lone bison bull was shot. The DOL, not FWP, is the lead bison management agency in Montana, which irks many conservation groups who claim bison are wildlife, not livestock.
In the complaint, the groups charge that by statute FWP and the commission are charged with protecting wildlife, not livestock.
The groups also claim that the changes are being made to elk management without any study — a formal environmental assessment or environmental impact statement — of the potential harm or benefit the measures may have.
“Skyline and Anaconda Sportsmen are asking the court to protect science-based management of Montana’s wild elk from political and unscientific decisions by the FWP Commission and FWP administrators,” said Kathryn QannaYahu, a Bozeman hunter who supplied documentation for the complaint, in a statement.
“FWP and FWC are spending hunting and fishing licensing revenue, which should be used for conservation and wildlife preservation programs, to advance policies which are harmful to wildlife and which instead benefit agricultural interests in deference to Department of Livestock policy agendas,” the complaint states.