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Gazette opinion: Fish & Wildlife Commission is on the wrong track
GAZETTE OPINION

Gazette opinion: Fish & Wildlife Commission is on the wrong track

Elk

Access for elk hunting is a continuing challenge that has limited opportunities for many hunters.

On a variety of issues vital to the state's stewardship of public wildlife resources and the principles of fair-chase hunting, the majority of our current Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission is acting in direct opposition to the public interest.

First, wolves. Admittedly, the commission was presented with ugly choices by the Legislature's passage of draconian anti-wolf measures requiring regulatory changes. But there was significant latitude in choices offered by FWP staff as ways to comply with the Legislature's misguided wolf-regulation legislation.

Instead of choosing a path that would have minimized the damage, the commission, by a 3-2 vote, doubled down.

The commission legalized the use of dangerous snares for trapping wolves on both public and private lands — devices that can indiscriminately kill other wildlife or domestic pets — as well as night hunting of wolves on private lands and the use of baits for the hunting and trapping of wolves.

The regulations also extend the length of the wolf trapping season, increase the harvest limit from five to 10 wolves per person, and eliminate harvest limits in two small Wolf Management Units bordering Yellowstone National Park and in one bordering Glacier National Park.

If the commission is interested in forcing federal re-listing of wolves under the Endangered Species Act, it could not have taken more effective action. These regulations represent an extermination plan, not a hunt or even a harvest plan. There is nothing remotely ethical about a "hunt" structured in this way.

Then, the commission decided to award eight trophy bull elk permits to the Wilks Brothers, ranch owners who have come to personify rich out-of-state interests blocking access to public lands.

Under the terms of the deal cut with the Wilkses, they control who uses the coveted bull permits in exchange for a small concession — 16 randomly drawn cow permits that must be used with a bevy of restrictions.

The eight permits exceed FWP biologists' recommendations and were awarded completely outside the usual FWP hunting system.

This decision by the commission indicates a trend toward privatization and commercialization of the state's best hunting opportunities — flying in the face of long-held Montana tradition.

The "public" the commission is listening to is not the general hunting-tag-buying public but rather the "public" of landowners, outfitters and other special interests.

Both the wolf and elk decisions cut directly against the large majority of public comments received by the agency on both issues.

Commissioner Pat Tabor, a Whitefish outfitter, defended the Wilks deal by saying it was an example of the commission "finally getting to a meaningful relationship with private landowners."

It seems to us the commission is beginning that "meaningful relationship" on bended knee.

The Gianforte Administration seems to be catering to both the landowners and to those who have non-science-based hatred for predators.

It is doing so at its political peril. Even though much of the Legislature and a part of Gianforte's base is clearly of the "smoke a pack a day" mentality when it comes to wolves, many others in this state are not. And when it comes to elk regulations and access to public lands, Montanans are passionate. Anything that limits opportunity for license-buying, law-abiding members of the public will not be forgotten on Election Day.

A course correction for the Fish and Wildlife Commission is necessary.

The Billings Gazette Editorial Board includes President and Publisher Dave Worstell, Regional Editor David McCumber, and Chief Photographer Larry Mayer.

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