Given the wide disagreement between hunters and landowners over proposed rules to address wildlife damage, members of the Montana Environmental Quality Council are considering stepping in to the fray.
“I’m not suggesting we short-stop the process,” said Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, a member of the legislative oversight committee. “But this is an important issue, and I hope we stay on point on this.”
The EQC reviewed an audit of the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ game damage program and also heard testimony from the public about a proposed rule change that would extend the hunting seasons — referred to as shoulder seasons — in certain areas in an attempt to kill elk that are damaging fences, haystacks and crops on private lands. The change would fall under the Administrative Rules of Montana, or ARM, which are agency regulations that set law or policy.
The most controversial points of FWP’s proposed rule change is that bull elk could be killed and that landowners could provide recommendations about who could kill the animals. That’s a red flag to some hunters who see the changes as a way for property owners to, in essence, sell or own public wildlife.
“If we go along with these ARM rules and shoulder seasons as proposed, we are going along with ranching for wildlife,” said LeRoy Mehring, vice president of the Skyline Sportsmen in Butte.
Chuck Denowh, of the United Property Owners of Montana, said the state’s wildlife is already commercialized by the state because of the selling of hunting licenses. He also said wildlife causes tens of thousands of dollars in damage on an average sized ranch each year.
“I truly believe they are public wildlife, but it’s time for the public to pay,” he said. “The shoulder seasons are a very tiny step in the right direction.”
Sen. John Brenden, R-Scobey, blamed the department’s abandonment of late cow elk hunts years ago as one of the reasons for the growth of elk populations. He said by dropping those hunts the department had attempted to push landowners into allowing public hunting. Although Brenden lets some hunters on his own property, he said he keeps others out who he called “hemorrhoids.”
“If you want to have a war between private landowners and sportsmen, we’ll have a war,” he said.
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But instead Brenden said he’d rather see “extremist views” on both sides of the aisle “stop being hypocrites.”
Under FWP’s proposal, the so-called elk shoulder season would allow rifle hunting in certain districts or portions of districts before or after the regular seasons to give hunters more opportunity. Montana already has a five-week rifle season that is preceded by a six-week archery season — one of the longest deer and elk seasons in the nation. In addition, the department can hold damage and management hunts outside the regular hunting seasons in specific areas or on private land by dispatching hunters who have placed their name on a call list.
“I don’t defend the department very often, but I believe they are doing all they can,” said Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek.
For years FWP has been caught in the middle of differing opinions voiced by some landowners, hunters and the Legislature. Some hunters argue that the problem is landowners protecting elk from public hunters during the season. Those elk then cross on to other private lands, where public hunting is allowed, at night or after the season to feed on crops. Some landowners want greater control over removing those elk themselves, either through tags issued directly to them to disburse to hunters they have vetted, or to friends and family. Some members of the Legislature have been pressuring FWP to reduce elk populations to bring them in line with population objectives, but the agency’s only means to do that is through hunting. Without greater public access to private lands to scatter or thin herds, that option is difficult.
The discussion about the situation is one filled with emotion from all sides.
Brooke Erb, a public member of the EQC, said her family used to allow hunters on their Dillon-area ranch but stopped because of problems caused by hunters during a busy time of the year. She cited one incident where someone had cut down a gate to use the posts for firewood. That allowed the family’s cattle to wander into the next county.
The main difference with the proposed shoulder season is that it would target an entire hunting district, not just one place where elk are congregated — such as a landowner’s irrigated alfalfa field. The length of the shoulder season could be short, only a couple of days, and could come before the regular season or after as long as it falls between Aug. 15 and Feb. 15. The shoulder season could also target either cow or bull elk. One of the main objectives is to reduce elk numbers quickly where they are over objective.
According to Jeff Hagener, FWP director, 56 of the state’s hunting districts are over objective for elk but only 15 of those are 100 percent over objective while a few are 1,000 percent over objective.
“Elk numbers have continued to climb,” he said. “Shoulder seasons came before the (Fish and Wildlife) commission to look at as another option” for controlling those elk populations that are over objective.
So far, he said the department has received more than 1,000 comments on the proposal with them running about half opposed and half in favor of the change. The Fish and Wildlife Commission will decide at its Oct. 8 meeting whether to move forward with the proposal. If approved it would join other proposed changes to the hunting regulations that will be open to public comment in December.
The EQC decided it will wait until after the October commission meeting to decide how to proceed. The council has the power to delay implementation of any rule change and could also have legislation written to specifically address the issue.
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