FWP Director Hank Worsech, when referring to the state of elk management in Montana, has repeatedly evoked a quote attributed to Einstein: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity.”
“We have to try something different,” claims Worsech.
While we agree that it’s foolish to repeat ineffective actions, it may be equally foolish to try something different without first recognizing the real problem.
On the eve of December's Fish & Wildlife Commission meeting, after a last-minute work session between the commission and FWP, a controversial proposal was tabled that would have allowed general bull elk harvests on private lands only, while forcing public hunters to fight over a 50% reduction in limited permits valid only on public land.
Thankfully, the commissioners saw right through this, likely a direct result of hunters speaking up in force, what Director Worsech called “a firestorm.” We commend the commission for listening as well as Montana hunters for speaking up.
However, what followed were hastily developed alternative proposals to solve the stated problem of too many elk on private lands, out for public comment now. These include removing archery permits and changing them to a general season (no special permit required) in many areas and increasing rifle bull permits by 50% in some districts.
We predict this alternative will be equally unpopular and, more importantly, fail to solve the stated problem of too many elk on private land. In fact, it may exacerbate the situation as it expands opportunities to hunt bull elk (not the problem) rather than cows (the problem). Moreover, increased pressure due to more hunters on the landscape will likely lead to greater concentrations of elk on private lands, not reduce it. All of this is further intensified by an outdated elk management plan being used as faulty justification.
FWP’s leadership is unwilling to admit that the real "problem" is not too many elk per se; rather, it’s the feeling that those who care about or are affected by elk don't have enough of a say in our elk. Neither the landowner, nor the outfitter, nor the average Montana elk hunter believes they’re getting what they want and think they deserve. It's time we agree on what problem we actually face: It’s the equitable opportunity to hunt elk. In other words, the problem here is access to elk, not the number of elk.
Under the guise of wanting to address too many elk on private land, what FWP’s leadership is really after is a way to satisfy the interests of groups like United Property Owners of Montana and Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, large landowners and outfitters.
By using an underhanded scheme to privatize and commercialize a public resource that belongs to all Montanans, these proposals would shift the public-private balance. This growing inequality of who has access to elk has put Montana on the path of creating a class system of the haves and the have-nots of who gets to hunt elk — reminiscent of the days of the King’s deer of feudal Europe, or modern-day New Mexico. Having fought back the monetizing of our public resources for more than 100 years now, Montana hunters can see right through this.
So what do we do? How do we address the real problem? How do we move beyond this insanity of favoring some at the expense of others? How do we achieve an equitable distribution of access to elk for both private and public interests?
For one, we need to pump the brakes. FWP needs to admit that trying to throw solutions at a problem that is not actually the problem is what really amounts to insanity here. We need to agree first on what the actual problem is. This can only happen when landowners, hunters, outfitters and others come together to discuss what it is that they want and need. A well-crafted statement of the problem up front ensures that stakeholders start with a shared understanding of what needs to be solved.
Second, we need a new elk management plan. For years, FWP has promised to revise this outdated plan. Until we have a new elk plan finished, Montana hunters should reject the FWP elk season proposals outright, and ask that the existing seasons/permits be kept in place. In our view, it’s irresponsible to offer poorly guided solutions not even aimed at the correct problem.
To stop the insanity surrounding elk management, it’s time to find real solutions to the real problem of who gets to hunt elk in Montana. Let us start there.
Thomas Baumeister is a board member of the Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers