Alan Sorensen Havre Daily News email@example.com
Urban deer, not a burning issue in north-central Montana, gave way during the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks October meeting Thursday in Havre to one that is elk management. The encroachment of deer in the state’s urban areas and what to do about it was the hot topic that concluded the commission’s meeting. The commission reconvened for its afternoon working meeting to what Havre native and FWP Director Jeff Hagener said would be of interest to area big game hunters. Hagener said the last Legislature determined Montana’s elk population is too high and narrowly mandated that the FWP take measures to reduce the number of elk in the state. According to recent survey results presented by Quentin Kujala, management bureau chief of the wildlife division, hunters, outfitters and landowners disagreed in varying degrees. Twelve percent of the hunters who responded to the survey said elk populations were too high, while 18 percent of outfitters and 44 percent of landowners agreed. Kujala said 41 percent of hunters, 64 percent of outfitters and 53 percent of landowners responded, numbers that he said pollsters called a good response. Kujala noted that the survey responses were sought only in areas where elk numbers are above the objective levels. The survey is just one part of a study being prepared for discussion at a Dec. 8 meeting prior to the commission’s regulation-setting meeting Dec. 20. “A slim number of legislators think there’s a problem and (are) forcing us to deal with this problem,” Commissioner Shane Colton said. “A good share of the hunters and outfitters are saying, What problem?’ and a lot of the landowners are saying the same.” Hagener said the dispersion of the elk population could explain the responses. The legislative mandate is coming from legislators in areas, he said, “where landowners’ tolerance is at a minimum.” Kujala presented statistics estimating the elk population in Montana at 123,000 in 2006, a 14 percent increase over the 101,000 elk believed to be in the state in 2005. In a breakdown of the numbers, Kujala said the elk population within 20 of the state’s 44 management areas is within manageable or objective limits, while elk populations in 54 percent of the areas are above objective limits. He added that seven elk management areas have 150 percent of their manageable or objective limits. He said the elk harvest by hunters was up 8 percent in 2006, but the number of antlerless elk taken was down. In Region 6, which contains the northern half of Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the cow elk population is way up and efforts to cull the cows are failing. Liberalizing the rules for cow tags selling cow permits to any archers who apply and allowing resident hunters with A9 licenses and nonresident hunters with B12 licenses to take a second cow don’t seem to be working as well as hoped. “A second elk is different than a second deer,” Commission Chair Steve Doherty said. “It’s a bigger animal, takes up more freezer space and it’s Harder to get out.” In some areas, like some hunting districts in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, the first tag is for either bulls or cows and the second is only for cows. Commissioner Willie Doll, who lives south of Malta in Region 6, said the unlimited policy should be limited to cows with a drawing for bulls to follow. “There are way too many cows in the Breaks,” he said. Doherty said he thinks the unlimited policy for archers is unacceptable to firearms hunters. “I think we’re creating a problem, or at least perpetuating one,” he said. A wildlife supervisor from Region 4, which includes Great Falls, said the sale of A9 and B12 licenses that are valid on private and state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation land have slumped since they were introduced in 2004. In the first year, 4,000 licenses were sold, while only 3,200 went out in 2005 and the number dropped to 1,800 in 2006. He said the problem was a shortage of places to go and the absence of elk when hunters get there. He said the focus should be on land that has a problem with too many elk. “Putting more hunters on the ground is still contingent upon access,” he said. Echoing his concern, others cited as the No. 1 reason for the burgeoning herds is landowners who close their land to public hunting. When a commissioner asked what the second and third reasons for inflated elk numbers are, FWP supervisors from Great Falls and Billings said in unison, “Access, access.” Colton said part of the problem with access is people buying up land and then closing it to all but private hunters. “We’ve got to address that,” he said. “They come in, buy a big spread, make it an elk hunting archery club and hunt public elk.” Doherty asked Kujala how many landowners in the state are denying hunters access. “It would be interesting if policy makers had actual data to make decisions,” he said. “It’s hard to know whether landowners are withholding access, except on a local level,” Kujala said. “Are there landowners out there locking up their property and hoarding elk?” He said 64 percent of landowners in areas with an abundance of elk said they allow free access to hunters. Doll said closer to 100 percent is needed. “The other 36 percent, all the elk will gravitate to that,” he said. “Even if you have 90 percent access, that’s not enough.” The question also arose as to how many hunters were actually allowed on property where landowners claimed free access, since free-access landowners still retain the right to give permission or deny it. Kujala said federal landowning agencies, stockgrowers representing landowners and legislators are being invited to discussions Dec. 8 about access. Commissioner Dan Vermillion said he wanted to find a way to get nonresident landowners involved in the discussions. Doll added that hunters’ unwillingness to shoot antlerless elk is also contributing to overpopulation. Resident hunters have long complained that out-of-state hunters target only trophy rack bulls. They are also blamed for driving the elk from open land to closed land and for having the money required to hire outfitters and to pay to hunt on private land. Hagener said any attempt to ban nonresident hunters would immediately result in lawsuits, just as they did in Arizona. He suggested lowering the number of nonresidents by 50 percent would be about the best the state could do. Colton said another problem created by land closed to hunting has caused some herds in the state to become completely nocturnal. He said farmers are suffering from herds that sleep the day on land closed to hunting and graze at night on land that is open. One example he used is “third- and fourth-generation farmers” along a river who grow beets and corn whose fields are raided by elk at night and then move back onto closed land at daylight. Whatever the commission decides, Colton said, it ultimately has “an obligation to Montana resident hunters.” A number of other issues concerning Montana’s public elk herds were discussed and will be voted on when the commission takes action on the big game regulations covering antelope, deer, elk, moose, sheep, goats and some bear in Montana at its Dec. 20 meeting.