Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks will draft a new elk management plan by fall, so some hunters question the need to pass such drastic season changes now.

FWP leadership spent two days this week explaining to the Legislative Environmental Quality Council all the big changes they’ve been making in the department, from managing elk and recreation to budgetary considerations. But elk issues dominated the discussion.

FWP administrator Ken McDonald said the department was still developing an elk plan, and he anticipated a draft plan would be out by this fall. The previous elk plan was published in 2005 and uses elk population objectives – manmade numbers based on habitat and public tolerance - to guide what hunters are allowed to do in each district.

The next step for the new plan is to survey landowners, outfitters and hunters on certain human-dimension aspects, McDonald said.

Last year, a working group settled on 19 guiding principles for the plan. Then the FWP commission added its own, which requires the plan to be consistent with administrative rules passed by the commission.

Whatever the commission decides about elk seasons on Feb. 4 will become the new administrative rule. So, according to the commission’s guiding principle, it would likely influence the new elk plan particularly related to district boundary changes.

Hunters have long questioned why the department didn’t rewrite the elk plan first.

“We’re happy to hear that it sounds like there will be a new elk management plan as early as next fall. I would just ask about the order that we’re going about making these decisions and drastic changes; if it makes sense to kind of put the cart before the horse and make these big decisions before we have a better idea of what those goals look like,” said Kevin Farron of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

When Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, asked if it made sense for the FWP commission to pass such big season changes when the elk plan was being drafted, McDonald said the commission has the option of putting the season changes on hold for the next two years.

“The types of proposals that are in front of them now, whether there’s a new elk plan or not, this is for a two year period. It’s looking at tools to affect elk management. And by looking at those tools now, that doesn’t limit a future commission from implementing a future elk management plan,” McDonald said.

That echoes what FWP Director Hank Worsech has repeatedly said regarding the big elk season changes he told biologists to support.

“I would love to have (an elk plan) in place. But I can’t see waiting another two years to get that done when we can make some changes now,” Worsech told the EQC.

Many of FWP’s season changes are dictated by the current elk population objectives in each district. Hunters have been saying those objectives are out of date and that many districts could have higher objectives. Plus, the 2005 plan said elk that reside primarily on inaccessible private land shouldn’t be counted against the objective, because hunters can’t get to them. But FWP isn’t following that requirement, particularly where millionaire landowners such as the Wilks Brothers own a majority of land in a district.

“We continue to advocate for updated objective numbers, because these outdated numbers are being used as justification for these drastic changes,” Farron told the Current.

McDonald and Worsech indicated the elk plan could change a fair amount by the time it is finalized. McDonald said they could change or eliminate the objectives or requirements, such as the one to count only accessible elk, because it raises the question of when and where are elk accessible.

“It might not be a one-size-fits-all across the state. Maybe in some districts, you have a numeric objective approach. In others, you may have a qualitative approach, and maybe things we haven’t even thought of that come out of the public process in another area,” McDonald said.

Rep. Willis Curdy, D-Missoula, asked how FWP could develop a competent elk plan by fall with so many biologists having left their jobs across the state but especially in Missoula’s Region 2.

Worsech said he’d be hiring more biologists but that he’d already asked the biologists to come up with elk season changes to fulfill his directive of combining districts and making the hunt as liberal as possible. In December, Worsech told the FWP commission he’d like to eliminate the biological considerations and base elk objectives entirely on social tolerance.

“The elk management plan will have more than just the biologists in play. There will be several people coming together on this. But they will have input from the biologists,” Worsech told the EQC on Monday.

On the topic of wolves, Sen. Pat Flowers asked Worsech if he’d consider doing something about the heavy death count of Yellowstone wolves in districts surrounding the park. For 15 years, Flowers was the supervisor of FWP Region 3 that includes areas around Yellowstone National Park so he’s well acquainted with the wolf issue.

“In the past, the department has worked with the park as another landowner. Just as we do with private landowners with big game on their property, we’ve taken the same approach when it came to another landowner, in this case the federal government that owns Yellowstone Park. I’ve never been supportive of creating a formal buffer zone. But it does make sense to give the park at least the due consideration we give other private landowners,” Flowers said.

Worsech said nothing would be done this year because wolf numbers need to be reduced. But depending on what happens by the end of the season in February, the department would need to look at it, Worsech said.

Worsech said that in his interpretation of the public trust doctrine – which normally has the government, FWP in this case, as the trustee preserving a resource like wildlife for the public good – the politically appointed commission is the trustee. So it’s not the department’s responsibility to speak out against anything. Science doesn’t lead the way; instead, science is used to justify actions within a limited framework so it doesn’t harm the resource.

“The role of the department is wildlife manager. Our role is to provide the best scientific information to the decision-makers and the decision-makers are the trustees. They are voted in by the public. The public then brings the social issues forward,” Worsech told the EQC. “The commission makes the decisions, not the department, to decide the social issues. It is the commission. That’s the way I see it and that’s what we’re doing under this plan.”

On Wednesday, FWP announced that on Friday, the commission will review the wolf hunting and trapping in Region 3 at 1:30 pm. Review is required when the death count hits 82 wolves and as of Wednesday, 74 wolves have been reported as killed. Yellowstone Park has identified 20 of those as normally residing in the park.

 Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.