The long-awaited process of developing a new Montana elk management plan is underway.

This week, the Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission gave Lindsey Parsons, FWP deer/elk coordinator, approval to begin what will be a long and probably difficult process of developing a new elk management plan for Montana.

FWP director Martha Williams said FWP staff has already devoted a fair amount of time in preparing for the plan.

“We’ve put more thought and effort into this elk planning process and what it should look like than in many of our other plans,” Williams told the commission. “That’s in recognition of our commitment to the importance of meeting the public expectation of inclusion and in recognition of the complexity and, frankly, the need for an elk plan.”

To kick the process off, Parsons said she would soon be asking people to apply to be part of a citizens working group of 10 and 12 people that is scheduled to meet two times this summer. The group won’t develop the plan itself but will hopefully come up with overall guidance: a mission statement and guiding principles.

Even those things, as vague as they are, may be a challenge to write, based on early discussions with some stakeholder groups, Parsons said.

“There’s recognition that this is a tough task as well as some skepticism that opposite ends of the stakeholder spectrum can come together on an issue such as elk,” Parsons said. “We just fall back on that this is a citizen-structured process and we are using trained facilitators.”

The previous plan was written in 2005, and many things have changed since then, including the sizes and distributions of both human and elk population in the state.

Those changes have led to elk management discussions becoming more contentious as landowners in some areas have had to deal with large herds causing property damage while others harbor elk on their land so that public hunters can’t keep elk populations in check.

The increasing outcry has prompted certain politicians to try to legislate elk management while FWP commission meetings dealing with elk seasons get as many heated comments as those dealing with wolves.

That’s especially been the case for the past four years, after FWP created what was supposed to be a pilot program for elk shoulder seasons. Shoulder seasons run longer than the five-week general season in districts where elk populations are larger than the objectives in the 2005 plan.

The catch with the shoulder seasons was that enough private land owners in a district were supposed to allow public hunting and hunters were still supposed to kill a majority of elk during the general season. Hunters grew frustrated when shoulder seasons were continued in districts were those criteria weren’t met.

Some are hoping that the new elk plan can reduce some of the arguments that go on between public hunters, outfitters and landowners. The population objectives in particular need to be reworked, since they’re based on a combination of social tolerance and hunter expectations.

The main concern Thursday is what kind of people would be part of the working group. Commissioner Richard Stuker stressed that all the stakeholder groups – landowners, public hunters, outfitters, conservationists – needed to be represented to ensure everyone would buy into the plan at the end.

In public comment, Chuck Denowh of United Property Owners of America said members of the working group should be selected by someone other than FWP; otherwise, the group would support what FWP wanted. Denowh also said landowners who had elk on their property should make up the majority of the group.

“It should be made up primarily of people with skin in the game. They’re the ones who would pay a penalty if the policy has a bad result,” Denowh said. “In this case, that’s landowners with elk.”

Nick Gevock, Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman, agreed with Stuker that the working group should represent all groups equally.
“I agree skin in the game is important. But all Montanans have skin in the game,” Gevock said.

Williams said anyone was welcome to apply but that applicants need to be willing to check their affiliation at the door and work with others to agree on an end product.

Commissioner Tim Aldrich reminded everyone that this was just the first step and that the resulting guidance wouldn’t be the final plan. The plan itself will still go through plenty of public comment and commission oversight before it’s done in a few years.

Wildlife management chief Quentin Kujala said the new plan might differ significantly from the current one.

“Maybe the next plan will be prescriptive like the current one. Perhaps it won’t look that way,” Kujala said. “One of the challenges is making sure we don’t confine our thought processes by what we’ve always done.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.