Montana Speaker of the House Wylie Galt at a floor session of the state’s House of Representatives. (Photo by Eric Seidle of the Daily Montanan)
A hearing on legislation designed to increase elk harvest in Montana perhaps unsurprisingly became a referendum on class and access this week as dozens of hunters came to the Capitol to protest an incentive program they said would leverage the state’s land and publicly held wildlife for financial gain by the powerful and well-connected.
“This bill is a redirection of how elk are managed in Montana,” said Randy Newberg, a public lands advocate and one of dozens of hunters who testified at a hearing on the bill on Tuesday. “This bill, in its huge change in elk management, is like a lot of bills: It’s going to create quite a few losers. And like many bills, this will reward a small handful of carefully selected winners.”
Rancher, outfitter, large-scale landowner and House Speaker Wylie Galt is the bill’s sponsor. Like many others, both hunter and rancher, he sees the Fish Wildlife and Parks Department as essentially delinquent in its duty to keep elk herds in the state under control — the population of 172,000 is nearly double the department’s target.
“We have a problem we need to deal with,” Galt, R-Martinsdale, said. “What we’re doing isn’t working anymore.”
HB 505, which was heard in the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks committee, has two main components, both ostensibly to help manage Montana’s elk population by offering incentives for increased harvest of the game animal on private land.
The first and most substantive element of the bill would give landowners with more than 640 acres the opportunity to sponsor 10 non-resident hunters each — an addition of at least 800 per the bill’s fiscal note to the 17,000 non-resident licenses already available in Montana — if their land is in a hunting district that is within an accepted, statutorily mandated elk population range under the state’s Elk Management Plan. If the landowner is above that objective range, which is the case for a majority of the 172 hunting districts in the state, the intent of the bill is to motivate them to work to reduce the population.
But despite the promises from the department and other supporters that this would increase cooperation between private landowners and hunters from the general public, critics of the bill from sportsmen’s groups and wildlife advocacy organizations see a mechanism for creating a massive windfall for wealthy landowners and outfitters with questionable benefits to the elk population or to the experience of hunters.
An additional wrinkle is that drafting and debate on the bill — a process that began when Galt came to the department with a proposal to enshrine six-month shoulder seasons in code — has played out while the Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission has been working with stakeholders to craft a new elk management plan, the current version of which dates back to 2004.
Quentin Kujala, the Fish, Wildlife and Park Department’s chief of staff, said he believes the bill can help illuminate the ongoing process to draft the 2021 elk management plan, and sharpen the focus on driving up elk harvest during that conversation.
The bill itself, on the other hand, has not had the same level of sunlight, a source of consternation for hunters who say they were left out of the conversation. The department was “remiss” in its failure to bring all parties together to vet the bill because the original idea came from Galt, not from within the department, said FWP director Hank Worsech.
Kujala referred to “ongoing” conversations on the subject of the bill, though he conceded the department did not carry out its usual review process. Emails exchanged between Galt, Kujala and others from the department in drafting the bill show that FWP requested that Galt hold off on a shoulder-season bill and consider the proposal that would eventually become HB505 instead.
The bill’s second provision would allow any hunter, resident or not, to forgo their general bull elk-hunting license for a special designation that allows them to hunt cow or anterless elk on private land (naturally, female elk contribute more to population growth than bulls) during a six-month season from August to February, which opponents say codifies an elongated shoulder season that was never meant to be in statute.
Under HB505, in exchange for volunteering to hunt anterless, the hunter in question would get five bonus points, which increase their odds for drawing high-demand permits for hunts in areas with limited public access.
This, combined with the incentive package in the first part of the bill, has some worried about the potential burden on the elk population, which has not always swelled as it does now.
“You’re really going to be seeing a whole lot of more hunters on the landscape and more elk killed,” said Kevin Farron, the Montana chapter coordinator of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “It’s just not sustainable.
Elk management is a regular political football at several levels of government in Montana. This goes even for the management objectives themselves, which Farron said are determined in part by “social constraints of landowners.”
Recent attention has gone towards shoulder seasons, which FWP has instituted in some districts on private land since 2015 as a means of controlling cow elk populations, something Galt said has helped to bring his family’s land closer to objective levels.
The Speaker, as a rancher and outfitter himself, has frequently waded into the issue. In 2019, he sponsored one bill that would have put six-month shoulders into law for anterless elk on private land and another that would allow hunters to purchase extra cow elk tags.
Two years later, the debate around HB505 has been similar, with lobby groups for outfitters, ranchers, and others going up against conservationists and hunters.
Critics like Newberg say the bill represents a departure from the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, which, while not an official policy per se, encourages governments to hold wildlife in the public trust, to give equal access to the outdoors and wildlife regardless of class or land ownership, to prevent the “frivolous” killing of animals and to ban the commercialization of game. The philosophy arose in the turn of the 20th Century, by which point commercial hunting and trapping for furs, tongues and all other manner of meat and body parts had decimated wild game populations.
As a result of this philosophy, landowners and ranchers have come to accept herds of elk on their land as a mixed blessing. In some cases, they cause damage, eating hay and trampling crops, but in exchange, they offer a way to drum up profit from high-paying hunters who want access to large elk populations with little competition.
“I outfit in part to offset the liability of damage from elk,” said Chuck Rein, a rancher and the president of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, which supports the bill.
The issue, said Farron, is that elk know to congregate where hunting is limited. As such, even though the state routinely finds that most districts are over objectives, a hunter on public land may not share the same perception.
“2,500 of those elk are on one person’s property,” he said, as an example. “What’s left is 500 elk for the entire rest of the unit. You’re never gonna talk to a public hunter who thinks there’s too many elk, and you’re hardly ever going to find a private landowner who think there aren’t enough.”
This dynamic means that hunters and landowners are often at odds. A rancher has little incentive to open their gates to the public if they can outfit their land and bring only a select few in.
Farron and other hunters are opposed to the specific provision of extra tags for non-residents, combined with the lack of any specific language ensuring that members of the public will be involved in the effort to control elk populations — something that Kujala said will happen naturally, as landowners open their gates to public hunters in order to meet the management objectives.
“The only reasonable explanation is the high-dollar value (of hunts on private property),” Farron said.
Prices for hunting licenses are set in statute. But that doesn’t mean that large landowners and outfitters can’t make significant profits by guiding out-of-staters on hunting trips on their land. Farron’s fear is that a group of neighboring property owners in an over-objective hunting district would band together to increase their elk harvest without needing public participation in order to qualify for the extra non-resident tags, something that could net them tens of thousands of dollars.
“This is ripe for hunting interests to bake the costs of these into guided hunts,” said Nick Gevock, the Montana Wildlife Federation’s conservation director.
The bonus point language also tilts the odds towards wealthy hunters with access to private ranch land, critics say.
Resident hunters earn only one bonus point for every year they’re unsuccessful in first-choice drawings. Under the bill, however, if they’re able to access private land where they can hunt anterless elk, they can signify their intent to hunt cows instead of bulls in exchange for the five extra points.
Kujala defended the fact that the bill would only grant these additional tags to non-residents, telling the committee that offering these landowner-sponsored hunting licenses to resident hunters would constitute “a reduction of opportunity.”
“The resident can already walk up to the counter any day of the hunting season and buy a general elk hunting license for $19 that’s valid anywhere in the state where a general license is valid,” he said.
Only 27 elk management districts in Montana are at objective, according to a fiscal analysis attached to the bill. The governor’s budget office estimates that as many as 80 landowners would qualify for the 10 additional tags.
Galt, whose family is one of the state’s largest private landowners, would not be one of those 80. He told the Daily Montanan that the districts that overlap with the Galt ranch are about 500% over management objectives, down from 900% over a few years back. Some of the debate around the bill stems from the fact that Galt is its sponsor — were the hunting districts around White Sulphur Springs to fall into the objective range, he and his family could qualify for the non-resident sponsorships.
The state has existing incentive programs, namely block management, in which the state makes payments — often significant ones — to landowners if they allow hunters access on their land. Still, compensation from block management is unlikely to exceed the possible gains from leading out-of-state hunters on guided tours.
Hunters can also sign up for a roster that landowners can turn to if they need to get within management objectives. But this is often a slow means of population control, and can be a hard sell for ranchers who would rather have friends and family come in to hunt during the shoulder season.
Landowner sponsorship programs are not novel. Montana has an existing sponsorship system for deer, and several other states have adopted similar legislation for their elk populations. One hunter who testified against HB505, Josh Chilton of Billings, said he’s hunted bull elk in one such state, New Mexico, which he described as a “polar opposite” as Montana.
“Here in Montana, we have the opportunity to hunt block management properties,” Chilton said. “In New Mexico, what you have is strictly pay-to-play. If I want to hunt a ranch in New Mexico, I have to contact the landowner, outfitter or manager and buy one of their tags. What my fear is…ranchers in Montana can make 15 grand if they have prime real estate through block management. In New Mexico, they can make however much they want to sell each tag for.”
The non-resident tags in HB505 are non-transferable, which the FWP department says is a needed sideboard against profiteering. But Chilton said he’s worried that the bill could open the door for a New Mexico-style system in the future.
“There are so many things that are liquid in this entire system. In no time, we’ll be in that situation,” he said.
The committee will vote on the bill later this week.
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