Opening more roads on federal lands will probably not significantly increase Montana elk hunters’ success and decrease elk populations where they are over management objectives, based on the findings of a recent report to the Environmental Quality Council.

The report doesn’t specifically state such a finding, but here is an accumulation of some of the facts that the report highlights that could lead to such a conclusion.

  • In 2014, about half of the 25,000 elk taken during the hunting season were killed on public land.
  • The highest hunter success rates were on private land where access was controlled, either through outfitting, an access fee or allowing only family and friends access.
  • The majority of public land in the state that cannot be accessed by the public — about 4,870 square miles — are in isolated sections owned by the state and Bureau of Land Management in Eastern Montana. Of these 3.1 million acres, less than one-third are considered elk habitat.
  • The lowest elk harvest rates are in northwestern Montana, but elk in those hunting districts are also at or below population objectives.

Resolution

These facts are just some of the many provided to the Environmental Quality Council last week in a report and interactive map created by legislative environmental analyst Joe Kolman. The report was written at the behest of last year’s Legislature following the passage of House Joint Resolution No. 13, sponsored by Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman.

In part, HJ-13 seeks “a specific emphasis on identifying reduced hunter opportunity in areas where roads have been closed on federal land or where there are large landlocked areas.”

Other views

Blaming low elk harvest on the closure of roads on federal lands ignores the real problems, said Mark Lambrecht of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, in testifying before the EQC. He pointed to increasing development in elk habitat, elk herds concentrating on private lands to avoid hunters and the increase in the number of predators on federal lands as three of the biggest issues.

Quentin Kujala, wildlife bureau coordinator for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said although road access can affect hunter success and elk distribution to some degree, there are many other factors involved, including: available public land forage, the amount of security habitat for elk, nearby private land forage, the amount of hunting pressure during the archery and rifle seasons and hunting regulations and their effect on hunter traffic.

“While it is clear some level of access is necessary to get hunters to elk for harvest and retrieval … it’s just as clear that road access can reach a point where elk are distributed out of the area, effectively removing them from harvest,” Kujala said.

Bigger view

The goal is to try and find some balance in that equation, Kujala said, providing access for hunters without pushing elk off public lands.

Attracting elk and other wildlife to stay on public land is no easy task, he said, although his agency is on the “front edge” of understanding what the drivers are to wildlife distribution by collaborating on and leading new studies.

Some of FWP’s own biologists partnered on a 2013 study that said in part that “traditional concepts of elk security habitat which consisted of large tracts of heavily timbered and low road density public lands may need to be refined to include private lands that prohibit or restrict hunter access.”

Also referred to as wildlife harboring, private lands holding large wildlife populations have grown to be a big challenge for FWP, with no easy answer available since private property rights are often invoked. Targeting federal lands may therefore seem like an easier political target.

Road closures

According to Kolman’s report, almost 6,000 miles of forest roads have been decommissioned in the last 10 years, mainly in Western Montana. The Kootenai National Forest has closed almost 4,000 miles of road to public use, but also has another 4,000 miles of roadway still open to the public.

“Overall, we have things pretty good in Montana,” said Nick Gevock of the Montana Wildlife Federation. “There’s broad satisfaction with what the Forest Service is doing.”

Eric Johnston, representing the Forest Service’s Region One headquarters in Missoula, said the agency is “a strong advocate for access to public land” but has to try to balance the wishes of people who want different experiences — such as hikers versus off-highway vehicle riders. Even elk hunters have different wants, he pointed out.

White’s fight

White has been an outspoken critic of federal road closures to motorized use and formed a pro-motorized user group — Citizens for Balanced Use — in 2004 to fight the Gallatin National Forest’s travel plan. He’s also introduced and supported legislation to study the return of federal lands to state management, even though he’s said such a transfer is too technically complex a task to undertake.

Neither Kolman’s report nor officials on hand could answer some of White’s questions about whether road closures have led to wildlife returning to those affected public lands or if predator pressure has kept that from happening.

“I know predators have a definite impact in my district,” White said. “It’s huge.”

He also noted that a 2013 University of Montana study found that 58 percent of off-highway vehicle owners said the most important issue facing OHV recreation is access to trails. In that year there were more than 77,000 registered off-highway vehicles in Montana.

All in 1 spot

No matter where elk hunters fall on the debate over road access, Kolman’s report and map provide a wealth of information. For example, the hunting district with the highest success rate over the last 10 years is HD 455, a small area in the Big Belt Mountains north of Helena which is part of the Devil’s Kitchen management unit. Two out of every five elk hunters filled their tag in that district. The district has no inaccessible public land.

For deer hunters, in “2013 more than three out of every five hunters shot a mule deer in District 680, which is bordered on the south by the Missouri River and includes portions of Chouteau and Blaine counties.” The best success for whitetail hunters was in HD 260, the Bitterroot Valley, where three out of every five hunters filled their tags in 2013 even though almost 90 percent of the land is privately owned.

The map and report can be found online at the EQC’s website

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.