For the third time since restrictions on archery elk permits were enacted in northeastern Montana in 2008, a bill has been introduced in the Legislature to reverse the controversial action of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission.
The sponsor of Senate Bill 151, Sen. Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo, told the Senate Fish and Game Committee during a hearing on Tuesday that he sees the legislation as a way to move landowner, sportsmen and outfitter relations forward on a “very sticky issue.”
Peterson and other supporters of the bill — which included farm and ranch groups, outfitters and guides and the Chamber of Commerce — said the bill would increase revenue for rural communities, boost hunter opportunity and reduce elk populations where they are above FWP’s management objectives.
Opponents of the bill — sportsmen’s groups as well as FWP — see the bill as one more attempt to overturn a deliberative process involving many meetings and comments by a variety of individuals.
“This bill continues to put hunters against landowners,” said Helena hunter Ben Lamb. “I think we’re all tired of this.”
The bill would keep the commission from reducing the number of elk archery permits in 30 hunting districts unless the elk population in a district drops below 85 percent of FWP’s objective.
Ken McDonald, wildlife bureau chief for FWP, said archery permits were limited in the 2008 season because of overcrowding as well as a fairness issue between rifle hunters, whose numbers are more rigorously limited, and archery hunters.
“This wasn’t about trying to force access” onto private land, he said. “It was about equality and hunting quality.”
He also noted that before 2008, 80 percent of the elk killed by archery hunters in the contested hunting districts were bulls, not cow elk. Killing cow elk is the best way to control elk numbers.
Chuck Denowh, whose group United Property Owners of Montana was created over the flap on the issue, said passage of the bill would correct a wrong created by the FWP Commission.
“It was always about punishing landowners who weren’t providing enough public access,” he said. “What it’s all about is coercion.”
In the last Legislature, a similar bill was killed in the final moments of the session. Peterson said that move left everyone — landowners, outfitters and sportsmen — bitter.
“I think we do have kind of a crisis,” he said, and he asked the committee’s chairman, Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, for time to make the bill more amenable to the group.
Brenden said he would give both sides all the time they want to figure out the issue.
“But I will tell you we will take action on this before transmittal” on Feb. 28, he said. “This is a tough bill. It’s a bill I think we need to respect each other on.”