A bill that would reinstate late cow elk hunts in Montana after the 11 week archery and gun seasons reignited the contentious debate over wildlife harboring during a Senate Fish and Game Committee hearing Tuesday.
Senate Bill 245, sponsored by Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, would create a late cow elk hunting season running from Dec. 15 to Feb. 15. Hunters would be required to purchase a $10 endorsement to participate.
A fiscal analysis of the bill states that only 10 percent of the 162 hunting districts in the state are over management objectives for elk. If an estimated 9,500 hunters took part in the late hunt, an additional $76,500 could be generated for the state.
“We need to do something,” Kary said. “This is my best ditch effort.”
Fish, Wildlife and Parks director Jeff Hagener spoke in support of the measure, mainly because he said the bill would give the department one more tool to manage elk that crowd private lands after the regular season, as well as to clarify that the department has the authority to conduct such hunts.
“Whether it will fully get us to the objective we want, I can’t tell you,” Hagener said.
The department moved away from late season hunts to what it calls damage hunts years ago when it created a new elk management plan. Under the current system, landowners who have allowed reasonable public access during the season can request damage hunts to remove elk and deer. Hunters are drawn from a pool from which they enter their name in the summer.
Sen. Rick Ripley, R-Wolf Creek, said his property is an example of the problem. While few elk are on his ranch during the hunting season when he allows access, once the season is over the elk move onto his land from a neighbor’s place who doesn’t allow public hunting. Although Ripley said he supports his neighbor’s private property rights to not allow hunting, that decision infringes on his private property rights when the elk feed on his fields and knock down his fences.
Hunters and conservation groups were divided on the bill. Some supported the measure, saying the old system worked well and allowed them to take a cow elk to fill their freezer. Hunter Brian McCullough, of Helena, said the late hunts also gave him some positive interactions with landowners where he hunted.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Blake Henning also backed the bill, saying the process used now has become too politicized.
But George Golie of the Montana Wildlife Federation said the bill would do no good because it doesn’t address the current problem: nontraditional landowners who harbor game. J.W. Westman of the Laurel Rod and Gun Club said the state moved away from the late cow seasons because it wasn’t effective. Joe Perry, of the Montana Sportsman’s Alliance, said the bill would simply cater to outfitters on private land who allow their clients to hunt bull elk during the general season and then ask the public to come thin the cow elk during a game damage hunt.
“Let’s not dance around,” Perry said. “All of the tools are already in the tool box. Antlerless-only seasons will cure the problem.”
Chuck Denowh, of the United Property Owners of Montana, accused FWP of not enforcing the current laws so he did not support SB245, saying it would “add another bill that they will interpret in their own way.” Denowh said it will take a lawsuit by landowners against the department to reduce elk numbers.
Many speakers noted that the problem is that elk are smart and quickly move away from any hunting pressure.
“I fail to see how the elk will be any more available” if the bill is approved, said Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman.
That prompted Hagener to tell the committee that FWP has created an internal working group to consider new options to reduce elk populations such as shoulder seasons, or creating two or three seasons in the hopes that elk won’t bunch up in one place. Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, suggested that one way to deal with the overpopulation would be to capture elk where they are a problem and move them to places like his district, where there are fewer elk.