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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Hunting bills seek to address growing elk populations in Montana

Bull elk

Elk populations across much of the state are growing, and above ideal thresholds set by wildlife managers. In recent years landowners, hunters and outfitters have disagreed about how to update policy to match the trend. But that could change during the current session of the Montana Legislature. Montana Public Radio’s Ellis Juhlin explains the proposals with Austin Amestoy.

Austin Amestoy: Ellis, Let’s get into this — most Montanans seem to be on the same page that there are a lot of elk. So why is that such a problem?

Ellis Juhlin: Well depending on who you are, elk numbers like that mean different things. For Agriculture and livestock producers a lot of elk is a big problem. They pass diseases on to cattle, they come in and eat crops, they destroy infrastructure like fences.

If you’re a hunter the problem is more about where the elk are versus how many there are. A lot of those elk are hanging out on private land and hunters just can’t access them.

Austin Amestoy: Well, just how many elk are we talking about?

Ellis Juhlin: According to data from Fish, Wildlife and Parks, they estimate the state’s elk population is around 175,000 animals, but they would like to see a population closer to about 92,000, and that’s just a big difference.

Austin Amestoy: Okay, so we’ve got a lot of elk but public land hunters can’t get to them. What do policy makers want to do about that?

Ellis Juhlin: In the big picture, they want to make it easier for hunters to get to hunt for elk on private land, where the elk are increasingly being found. There’s a package of bills brought forward by a group called the Citizens Elk Management Coalition, which is a citizen working group that was formed after negotiations over the issue last session really broke down between these interest groups and lawmakers.

That coalition introduced their plans earlier this year on the capitol steps with Senator Jeff Welborn, he’s a Republican from Dillon who played a big role in creating the coalition.  

“Some days, it doesn't seem like but there's way more space out in the middle for all of us to operate than if we're sitting way over here, way over here, throwing arrows at each other,” Welborn said.  “By coming out in this space like we’re all in in the middle, there’s always space to get good things done”

Ellis Juhlin: The bills moving forward would provide public access opportunities. But there’s certainly some disagreement about how that’s best done.

Austin Amestoy: So it sounds like lawmakers find themselves playing referee between private landowners, outfitters and hunters? After stalling out during the last session how is the policy fairing this time around?

Ellis Juhlin: There’s a lot of agreement, but there are a few sticking points. One of the proposals with the most support is one that would double block management. That has had almost unanimous support in both houses and it would get more public hunters on to private lands.

Where things get a bit more complicated is in other ways that private landowners are being incentivized to provide access. One of these proposals would give a landowner an either-sex or antlerless elk permit to hunt their land if they give at least three members of the public hunting access on their land as well.

Austin Amestory: Got it. So, what do groups think about that trade? Is that a fair swap, an elk tag for allowing three public hunters access?

Ellis Juhlin: You know, it really depends who you ask. Critics refer to this as a bulls for billionaires policy. They say three people really isn’t a lot of people and it’s a low price to pay for something like a prized bull elk permit. The policy also has language that says landowners would get to have a say on who the hunters are and some critics have concerns about this too.

Other people, like Ben Lamb, with the Montana Wildlife Federation and Citizens Elk Management Coalition say this is really a workable compromise.

“This really does help put some, some needed sideboards on this program helps keep it moving forward in a positive fashion and provides a lot of accountability that especially the hunting community has been asking for. So we do respectfully ask for it to pass,” Lamb said. 

Another one of the bills would do a similar thing but for non residents. It would create a preference pool of big game hunting licenses that would go to people who own at least 2,500 acres of land in Montana but are not residents. A difference with this bill is that it wouldn't require public hunting access as part of the trade. So it offers some incentive but doesn’t guarantee an increase in public access.

And that’s received a lot more pushback from groups who think it’s an unfair benefit to the wealthy landowner when the public isn’t getting enough access.

Representative Tom France, a Democrat from Missoula really got at this when he was speaking in opposition to the bill on the house floor.

“This is an open invitation for people of wealth, and even not that much wealth, to come to Montana and get their 2500 acres and avail themselves of one of our great amenities. And that's elk tags,” France said. 

Groups that support it say private landowners need a seat at the table and this is a meaningful way to include them in elk management and hopefully promote public hunter access at the same time.

Austin Amestoy: A complicated debate it sounds like. So what’s the status of these bills then?

Ellis Juhlin: Both the non resident preference pool and the elk hunting access agreement bills have passed both chambers and are on their way to Governor Gianforte’s desk.

That bill to increase block management payments is awaiting a final vote in the House, and will then move onto the Governor if approved.

Austin Amestoy: Well we’ll count on you to fill us in on how things shake out Ellis, thanks for your reporting.

Ellis Juhlin: Thanks for having me Austin.

Ellis Juhlin is MTPR's Rocky Mountain Front reporter. Ellis previously worked as a science reporter at Utah Public Radio and a reporter at Yellowstone Public Radio. She has a Master's Degree in Ecology from Utah State University. She's an average birder and wants you to keep your cat indoors. She has two dogs, one of which is afraid of birds.
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