Ending a chaotic public process lasting six months, the Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission voted in favor of several big changes to Montana’s elk and deer seasons, including limiting hunters to their first choice for elk bull permits.

On Friday, after the commission proposed amendments to FWP’s elk season proposal, a notable thing happened during public comment: Representatives of hunters, outfitters and rich landowners – normally adversaries when it comes to elk - all called for the commission to reject the proposed elk season, although each had a different reason. They said it would be better to reinstate the regulations used for the 2020-21 season and start over.

However, commissioners said too much work had gone into the proposals to reject them. After a few amendments, they passed the proposals for the next two years.

“I can guarantee we did read your comments and spent a lot of hours doing it. So I don’t want you to think we didn’t listen. We did. We’re just trying to do the best we can,” said commission chair Lesley Robinson.

Hunters opposed the rushed, disorganized process that led to a massive jumble of confusing changes made under the guise of making regulations more simple.

“This is all being done at the 11th hour – it’s kind of hard to vet these within five minutes of hearing them,” said Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Marcus Strange. “

Back in August, Worsech first told biologists to enlarge districts, eliminate tools like cow permits and increase the number of licenses and bull permits as much as possible to make things simple because he believed hunters had trouble reading the regulations. Then, as the commission was reviewing the proposals in December after public comment, Worsech added a few more last-minute requirements.

Biologists had to stuff their proposals within Worsech’s new constraints and then incorporate public comment with only two weeks before the commission had to make its final decision. One of Worsech’s final proposals required biologists to increase the number of permits by 50% in six districts where the elk population was over objective.

But on Friday, Commissioner KC Walsh didn’t back that.

Elk become over populated mainly in districts where large landowners don’t allow public hunting so the herds, harbored on private land, continue to grow as a result. Guides can charge as much as $8,000 to $10,000 for an elk hunt, so some landowners purposely harbor elk so they can outfit hunts.

Such landowners want unlimited numbers of bull elk permits, so they can sell hunts to more nonresidents. For instance, the Wilks Brothers ranch covers about 85% of hunting district 411 in the Snowy Mountains. So increasing the number of permits in district 411 only helps those who can pay to hunt on the Wilks Ranch.

Walsh proposed an amendment limiting the number of permits in a few districts including 411 instead of the unlimited number proposed by the department. Region 4 biologists had told him they’d been increasing the number of permits over the past several years, but that increase shouldn’t continue. Commissioner Brian Cebull made a similar amendment for archery permits since districts are no longer bundled together for archery permits.

Commissioner Pat Tabor, an outfitter, said that the department had recommended the 50% increase, so he questioned why biologists were recommending against it.

“It seems like we have Region 4 and the headquarters in disagreement,” Tabor said. “I’m a little alarmed with this problem.”

Worsech said he wanted to raise the number to do something about the populations but biologists wouldn’t raise it because public hunters can’t get access to private land.

“I struggle with this all the time,” Worsech said.

Both Mac Minard of Montana Outfitters and Guides Association and Charles Denowh of United Property Owners of Montana expressed their displeasure with the amendments.

“Thank you, Director (Hank) Worsech, for sticking to your guns and trying to solve this problem,” Denowh said. “But this is punitive, it’s coercive. This is an attempt to have landowners give up their property rights. It hasn’t worked in the past, and it’s not going to work now.”

UPOM has been trying for the past year to get rid of permit limits in places like the Missouri Breaks so more nonresidents can get permits. In the 2021 Legislature, Denowh backed House Bill 417, which would have allowed unlimited permits in districts like 411 that are over objective, almost identical to Worsech’s proposal.

“We’re limiting opportunity. This takes us backwards in terms of nonresident participation. I would rather stick with my friend from the Montana Wildlife Federation and dump this whole thing,” Minard said.

While the majority of Friday’s 38 commenters asked the commission to reject the elk season proposal, the one thing hunters did approve of is requiring all permits to be first and only choice. That helps with overcrowding because hunters are limited to staying in the district where they drew the permit. Tabor suggested all permits be first and only choice.

However, Commissioner Dana Waller asked for an amendment to allow hunters who apply for a permit in district 270 in the southern Bitterroot to also hunt anywhere else because weather can be a factor. Cebull said he couldn’t support just one district being exempt but the amendment passed.

While the elk seasons commanded most of the attention, mule deer may take the spotlight in the future, based on the commission discussion on deer seasons.

Cebull questioned why the mule deer season was being liberalized in eastern Montana when the general population trend was down, especially for fawns. Region 7 biologist Brett Dorak agreed there’s been a decline over the past two years due to drought conditions, but post-hunting season surveys were mostly stable and he’d wait to see what this spring’s survey says.

In Region 2 around Missoula, mule deer numbers are also down, so biologists chose a season lasting three weeks instead of five in some districts after Worsech told them to use general season tags for mule deer rather than permits.

Acting wildlife manager Liz Bradley said hunters have killed fewer bucks in recent years so they don’t want to over-harvest deer on the western side of the state.

“We’re proposing the three-week as a way to learn what we can over the next several years. We’re also committed toward putting more money toward mule deer surveys,” Bradley said. “Harvest is only one way we can manage. We certainly have an eye toward other factors that drive mule deer trends. Short-term things such as weather, predation, competition with elk and whitetail and certainly habitat quality.”

Biologists have noted that as elk populations have exploded, mule deer herds have declined, suggesting that competition is a factor in some places. Elk are larger and can eat a lot more when both species are vying for shrubby vegetation in winter. An Oregon study in 2000 showed that mule deer avoid areas occupied by elk. So that could be a factor in western Montana.

Tabor questioned whether it was right to limit hunters to three weeks.

“I wonder if we’re getting after the right issue,” Tabor said. “If we have a declination, it’s mostly attributable to habitat or predation on fawns and does. Certainly, by going to a three-week season, you stay out of the rut. Do we have enough information to know whether whittling down to three weeks is the right prescription?”

Bradley said it was hard to predict what might happen long-term, so some Region 2 districts will still have a five-week season so they can compare results.
“There’s a lot of information in eastern Montana about how three-week seasons don’t work to increase buck-doe ratios. But recognizing we have a different dynamic on the west side, certainly with migratory deer, that sets us up to learn something.”

The deer seasons passed without amendment.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.