For years, Travis Kamp fought to keep elk out of his alfalfa fields in the Pine Ridge area east of Billings.
During the day, the elk would hide out on adjacent private property along Fly Creek, where hunting was limited or not allowed. At night, the elk would file onto his green fields to feed. Kamp estimates that he lost thousands of dollars in crops to the animals.
To deter the elk, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks provided night herders, noisemakers and crafted special hunting seasons, all of which failed. Hunters couldn't kill the elk because they only came onto Kamp's property at night, and the elk quickly lost their fear of the night herders and noisemakers.
As a last resort, Kamp installed 2.5 miles of electric fence around his alfalfa.
"It's paid for itself just in my quality of life," he said. "I don't have to get up at 2 a.m. and chase the elk out of there."
But he admitted, "All I really did was shove the problem over. Everyone else has the problem now."
Hunting is the only way Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks can control wildlife populations - adjusting seasons, licenses and special permits to reduce or protect game populations. But when game animals seek refuge on private lands that allow limited or no hunting, FWP's main management tool is useless.
A bill being drafted at the request of Rep. Kendall Van Dyk, D-Billings, seeks to remedy the problem by outlining a system for dealing with wildlife harboring, including punitive measures that Fish, Wildlife and Parks could take to pressure landowners not to provide game refuges that harm adjacent landowners.
"This does not attempt to force the public onto private land," said Craig Sharpe of the Montana Wildlife Federation, which backs the proposal. "It's a process for adjacent landowners to request a review to see if there's a concentration of animals or harboring."
Called the Montana Big Game Animal Damage Mitigation Act, the proposal would follow up a landowner's complaint with an FWP investigation. The results would be passed on to an advisory committee for review.
Landowners could be required to disperse big game animals through a department-approved plan. FWP could also adjust the length and scheduling of hunting seasons to facilitate the removal of animals and modify the type and number of licenses issued for the hunting district.
For landowners who refused to cooperate, the proposal would have other remedies, including:
• Loss of landowner preferences for hunting licenses.
• Loss of resident landowner-sponsored and outfitter-sponsored license use on the property.
• Restricting or prohibiting the harvest of antlered animals in locations of concentration.
• Requiring the harboring landowner to pay all associated costs incurred by the commission and department in investigating and for any actions to reduce the concentration of big-game animals through a department-conducted dispersal plan.
But not everyone agrees who's responsible for the problem.
Hunters who can't access game during hunting season blame landowners for harboring public wildlife for personal gain, such as from fees gained through outfitting or leasing their land for hunting. Some hunters also blame public-lands grazing by cattlemen for reducing forage for wildlife, effectively driving big game onto private lands during the hunting season.
Landowners say they're well within their rights to make money off public wildlife through leasing and outfitting because the animals eat their grass and grain and damage fences.
Some lawmakers believe that Fish, Wildlife and Parks is at fault for not creating more liberal hunting seasons, allowing more game to be killed until populations reach desired management levels.
Others blame hunters for being too selective, only wanting to shoot large bulls or bucks, or even too lazy to walk into areas where elk and deer hide during hunting season.
Kamp has resolved his problem. As far as he is concerned, FWP did everything within its power to help him and adjacent landowners troubled by elk, short of making life hell for the landowners who harbored the animals.
He said he doubts that any measure forcing landowners to expel wildlife or face consequences will pass the Montana Legislature, but he said Mother Nature may eventually step in to solve the problem.
"Sooner or later there will be ten times more elk than we need and disease will wipe them out," Kamp said. "Then they'll spend millions trying to figure out what happened."
Contact Brett French at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 657-1387.