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When it comes to elk in Montana there seems to be no happy medium. While some people in the western part of the state are crying foul over the drop in certain elk populations, some in northeastern Montana are angry because there are too many.

Elk populations in many of the hunting districts in and surrounding the Missouri Breaks are above Fish, Wildlife and Parks management objectives. Although the elk couldn't attend a recent hearing, they were at the center of a legislative debate when House Bill 361, sponsored by Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman, was heard. The bill would require a return to 2007 when archery-only elk permits were unlimited.

On its surface, HB361 seems to be a way to reduce the overabundance of elk — allow more hunting and fewer elk will survive, easing landowners' complaints of overpopulation. But in an open letter to Montana sportsmen, Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commissioner Ron Moody outlined several problems with turning the clock back four years:

Moody noted that where hunting permits are limited, no more than 10 percent may go to nonresidents. “Without the limit on permits, nonresidents may, and often do, obtain more than 10 percent of permits.”

Moody goes on to state that unlimited permits in a district with large numbers of valuable wildlife fuels and accelerates the commercialization of wildlife in three ways:

“By issuing unlimited permits the state is effectively facilitating and subsidizing the privatization of public wildlife when the lure of profits persuades landowners who otherwise would allow public hunting on more traditional terms to switch to commercial hunting.

“With private land access constricted by fee hunting or harboring, this multitude of hunters concentrates on the open access of public lands.

“This profit opportunity motivates some landowners to cut off public access to public lands neighboring their properties in order to enlarge and secure their control over the public game on their land.”

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Moody summarizes: “The limiting of permits is not a 'cure' for any of these three factors. It is, however, a means of reducing and controlling the financial energy behind the commercialization movement to the benefit of public hunters who have a right to expect their state government to allocate use of resource equitably among all people.”

He adds: “Having said all that, I think private landowners who maintain quality wildlife habitat on their property deserve more compensation than tradition has produced for them.”

Moody was not a FWP commissioner when the limited permits were approved in 2007. He did, however, speak in favor of them as a member of the archery-hunting public.

Bozeman outfitter Paul Ellis spoke in favor of HB361. He wrote in an e-mail to The Gazette that “There are more Montana bowhunters that support HB361 than don't! The resident bowhunter has lost a lot of hunting opportunities! So this isn't just about outfitters and landowners, it's about resident bowhunters and local businesses!”

Ellis and others have put a $9.3 million price tag on the cost of lost hunting opportunity in the districts.

With 63 percent of the elk habitat in the Missouri Breaks elk management unit public land, Ellis said there is plenty of public land with adequate access. Another 30 percent of the 1.1 million acres of private land is enrolled in the Block Management Program, he wrote.

The Legislature will get the last word on this disagreement when the bill passes or fails. Hunters should make their voices heard by contacting their representatives.

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