After a lengthy and sometimes contentious debate, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission decided to extend the public comment period from 30 to 60 days on a proposed elk hunting season.
The proposal could allow hunting before and/or after the existing archery and rifle seasons to reduce elk populations.
“This is a proposal that the department has worked really hard on, but a fair bit of the public pushback you’ll get on this is that it’s being done too quickly,” said Dan Vermillion, commission chairman from Livingston.
He also noted that many of the state’s conservation groups don’t meet in the summer, and folks are on vacation and so may not take part in the discussion.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials had requested the 30-day public comment period to provide time for wildlife managers to set a late season this December and to aid in setting the 2016-17 hunting seasons.
Support and opposition for the proposal split along a common divide — public land hunters versus landowners and outfitters.
Drummond-area rancher Ron Wetsch said the overpopulation of elk is so bad on his property, even though he allows public hunting, that if something isn’t done soon he and his neighbors may take matters into their own hands.
Last hunting season, Wetsch said 147 elk were killed on his property, but by this spring 600 elk calves had been born. He estimated that elk cost him $80,000 in feed for his livestock last year and $75,000 so far this year.
“Our biggest problem is Fish, Wildlife and Parks,” he said. “If it don’t work, change it.”
Jay Bodner, of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, also supported the idea of extending the hunting seasons to remove more elk.
He said the general consensus among the group’s members is that the more tools that FWP has available to reduce elk populations, the better.
Commissioner Richard Stuker, of Chinook, sided with the landowners.
“If we do not do something, I think there will be a revolt among the landowners,” he said.
Lack of access
On the hunting side, J.W. Westman of the Laurel Rod and Gun Club said that the issue goes back to the “same old story” of a lack of access to elk on private land during the hunting season. He noted that sportsmen and women took a beating in the Legislature for opposing the reinstatement of a late cow elk hunt — Senate Bill 245 — which eventually was passed but then vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock.
“This plan looks pretty close to what SB245 was,” Westman said.
He argued that there are still tools available to FWP under the current elk management plan to reduce elk numbers, such as going to cow elk hunts only in districts where the elk are over population objectives.
Incorporating landowners who don’t allow public hunting to take part in late-season cow elk hunts bypasses current requirements, said Kathryn QannaYahu, of the website Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife and Habitat. She questioned whether FWP should even count elk where they are harbored.
Commissioner Matt Tourtlotte, of Billings, agreed with the objectors to the proposal, saying FWP hasn’t done everything it can under its current elk management plan to reduce populations.
“This whole proposal is being driven by objective, and I don’t feel like that information is accessible,” he said.
“My sense is that most objectives are set by tolerance,” Vermillion said, noting that Montana’s landscape could support more elk but at a cost to its agricultural economy.
But driving down elk populations in places like rural portions of Eastern Montana could be tough no matter how many cow elk permits FWP issues or how long the seasons are extended, Vermillion added. Most hunters live in the state’s cities, meaning it’s a long drive, and late seasons come at a busy time of year because of the Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays, along with busy sports seasons.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said