I am fortunate to have served with 11 outstanding, diverse Montanans, on the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks statewide elk brucellosis working group. FWP convened us to develop guidelines for elk management in areas with brucellosis, which the Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted. We reconvened, after the 2013 risk season, to help draft the 2014 elk management work plan.
The outcome was consensus on three fundamental objectives:
Minimize brucella transmission risk.
Maximize acceptability of actions to four stakeholder groups including landowners, livestock producers, sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts.
Maximize cost effectiveness.
We also provided management options and recommended establishing local working groups to develop site-specific brucellosis transmission mitigation actions consistent with the fundamental objectives. To meet objectives for the 2014 management plan, we limited lethal control to April 30 (some believe even this was too far into the spring) because of the potential increased transmission risk by leaving infective material in the field. Originally we agreed any fencing needed to be small scale, for acceptability, cost effectiveness, and possibly statutes.
Ranchers’ new plan
During 2013, a watershed group in Park County began a local working group, three sportsmen attended. This group concluded that the management options did not go far enough and brought new plans to the FW Commission in February: extend lethal actions to May 15 and modify stack fencing to include large-scale fencing for elk exclusion. The commission voted to tentatively accept the proposals pending written public comment.
Of the 71 individual comments, 58 were against and not one of nine sportsman clubs was in support, nor were the three sportsmen that were a part of the Park County local “working group”.
On April 10, sportsmen from around the state traveled to Helena or met at regional FWP offices to give public comment. Not one sportsman supported the proposed changes. Despite the overwhelming lack of sportsmen acceptability, in direct conflict with the fundamental objective to maximize acceptability of elk management actions, the commission passed the proposed changes, voting 3-2.
I commend Commissioners Larry Wetsit of Wolf Point and Matt Tourlotte of Billings for supporting sportsmen and conservation groups by voting against the proposals. Commissioner Richard Stuker of Chinook, an agriculture community representative, held the party line and voted for the proposals. What was striking about Stuker’s actions was his pre-vote threatening commentary, stating that if sportsmen stop this action and he had land in Park County, he would close hunter access. How disappointing to have the most inflammatory, threatening words of the day come from the commissioner’s podium.
Commissioners Gary Wolfe of Missoula and Chairman Dan Vermillion of Livingston both clearly understood the lack of sportsmen support but still felt they needed to do “something”. As a member of the statewide working group, I know the level of consideration and effort that went into achieving consensus for our objectives. Why would these two FW commissioners completely ignore that guidance? Is Wolfe pandering to the Legislature for approval? Is Vermillion seeking livestock support for a higher office?
In essence, a small self-appointed group composed almost entirely of livestock owners and with only the support of livestock owners caused the FW Commission to disregard their own accepted fundamental objectives and turn a blind eye towards the statewide elk brucellosis working group’s years of effort. I am disappointed, but unfortunately, not surprised.
Developing localized management actions that maximize acceptability and cost effectiveness requires leadership. Where are you Gov. Steve Bullock and FWP? As neighbors and fellow Montanans we can and will work together; we will find solutions, we just need leadership and fairness. Is that too much to ask to when it comes to managing elk?