Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) A sportsmen’s group is questioning Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ interpretation of its recent elk hunting poll, particularly claims that most resident hunters are satisfied with current elk management.

Last week, Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers posted its analysis of FWP’s elk management survey and found flaws in a number of FWP’s conclusions, including that “73% of the respondents from this survey are satisfied with elk management in Montana.”

“Politics are politics. When the Legislature has an idea, it doesn’t have to be right, it doesn’t have to be rational,” said Thomas Baumeister, Montana BHA vice chair. “But when FWP does a survey, the expectation is that it’s statistically sound. For them to pull this one by creatively adding up some stuff, there’s almost intent here.”

Between late December and early March, FWP sent mail-back surveys to 5,000 resident hunters, randomly selected from those who bought elk licenses during the 2022 season. The survey results, released Aug. 9, were calculated based on slightly more than 2,000 hunters who responded.

The survey asked hunters to respond using a 5-point scale where 1 is “very unsatisfied,” and 5 is “very satisfied,” with 3 being “neutral.” Around 27% of respondents marked “satisfied” and around 8% said they were “very satisfied,” for a total of 35% being some shade of satisfied.

So how did FWP come up with 73%? It added in the 38% of hunters who indicated they felt neither satisfied nor dissatisfied.

Baumeister told the Current he questioned Justin Gude, head of FWP wildlife research, about FWP's claim that neutral hunters were "satisfied," and Gude reportedly sent an email response saying “folks can interpret the results in their own way.”

The Missoula Current asked FWP for further comment but received no reply.

“Following FWP’s logic, we could just as easily count those neutral responses as being dissatisfied, meaning that 65.1% of Montana are dissatisfied. This would give us a valid reason to be alarmed, as FWP is required, among other things, to manage for hunter satisfaction,” Baumeister wrote in the Aug. 22 BHA post.

Professional pollsters use a number of techniques to ensure their poll accurately represents the target population. Such techniques include, neutral phrasing in questions, random sampling and samples large enough to produce a margin of error less than 5%.

According to the Pew Research Center, “a reputable polling organization will make available some basic information about how the poll was conducted, how the questions were asked and what questions were asked. If the organization won’t provide that information, you shouldn’t trust its polls.”

FM3 Research is a national public-policy research company known particularly for conducting several respected public-land polls, including the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project and the University of Montana Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Initiative public lands polls.

When he was shown FWP’s poll and conclusions, FM3 President Dave Metz said FWP’s interpretation was “to say the least, a highly unusual approach.”

“The reason for using a five-point Likert scale is to ensure that respondents can choose a midpoint category that does not associate them with either end of the scale. There doesn’t seem to be an empirical justification for grouping those respondents with the top, rather than the bottom, of the scale,” Metz told the Current in an email. “This is particularly true because, so far as I can tell, there is no ‘don’t know’ option offered to the respondent. So if I am a hunter who has no idea how the State is doing on elk management, my only real option is to choose category three. To then say that I am ‘satisfied’ with elk management is not really a fair characterization of my views.”

The question on hunter satisfaction wasn’t the only aspect of the survey that BHA flagged as misleading.

For example, in the Aug. 9 press release, FWP said the survey showed hunters wanted less restrictive hunting regulations statewide instead of having districts where hunting was limited to keep more bull elk available. Knowing the history of elk hunting particularly in eastern Montana, BHA members were skeptical of FWP’s claim.

But at first, FWP posted just a summary of the poll so BHA couldn’t investigate further. When BHA protested, FWP posted the complete results. That’s when BHA saw that 45% of hunters said harvesting a mature bull was either important or very important while 27% said it was unimportant.

When they dug further into the poll responses by FWP region, they found half of those who hunt in northeast Montana - Region 6 - preferred less opportunity if it meant they had a better chance of getting a mature bull.

“This is likely because it’s generally recognized in these areas with limited public access and open country that a free-for-all would ruin public-land elk hunting,” Baumeister wrote. “Furthermore, take the 63% of respondents who say there were too few mature bull elk in the area they hunt, with only 8.5% saying there were too many.And add that to the 60.3% of respondents who say there are too many elk hunters, with only 4.5% saying there are too few hunters.”

Boone and Crockett Professor of Wildlife Conservation Josh Millspaugh. (Courtesy photo)
Boone and Crockett Professor of Wildlife Conservation Josh Millspaugh. (Courtesy photo)
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The largest percentage of residents who responded - 36% - hunted in Region 3, and about 18% each hunted in Region 2 and Region 4. Regions 5, 6 and 7 in eastern Montana had the fewest resident hunters with Region 6 having 4%.

Baumeister said BHA wants FWP to interpret the poll accurately, because the results will likely be used to justify other department actions. In particular, FWP recently published a draft Elk Management Plan that, among other things, might allow general hunting in eastern districts where bull elk are now limited by permit. FWP’s claims regarding the poll would seem to support doing that, although the actual results may not.

“The only way to get close to what we believe the survey results actually tell us, however, is to continue offering a hybrid system where the majority of elk hunting units are general opportunities, and others remain limited-entry for bulls while still offering ample cow harvest opportunities on private lands for those experiencing problematic concentrations of elk,” Baumeister said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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