After some large landowners in eastern Montana sued the state wildlife agency over elk hunting regulations, Montana’s hunting groups have entered the legal fray to defend equitable hunting.

A coalition of Montana hunting and conservation groups this month filed to intervene on behalf of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks against the United Property Owners of Montana. The coalition includes Missoula’s Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, Helena Hunters and Anglers, Montana Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Montana Bowhunters Association, Montana Wildlife Federation, Public Land Water Access Association and Skyline Sportsmen.

“Hellgate Hunters & Anglers is proud to join in standing up for Montana’s elk and our time-honored, science-based wildlife management practices,” said Walker Conyngham, Hellgate Hunters & Anglers president. “Montana hunters across the state look to the department and our wildlife managers for responsible, equitable management of our big game species. We’re stepping up to protect those men and women, Montana hunters, and our elk herds from this reckless, misguided attempt to fundamentally change elk management in our state.”

On April 6, in the District Court for Fergus, Judith Basin and Petroleum counties, UPOM attorney John “Jack” Connors filed a complaint against FWP and the FWP commission, saying FWP has failed to keep the elk population under control and that the FWP commission made an unlawful decision in February when it voted to maintain a limit on the number of hunting permits in nine eastern Montana hunting districts. The hunting districts include 410, 417, 620, 621, 622, 630 and 700, all of which surround the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.

Many Montana landowners work with FWP biologists to manage elk in several ways, from participating in the Block Management Program to requesting damage hunts. But UPOM wants none of that.

The lawsuit demands that FWP come up with an emergency plan within 90 days to reduce the elk population but restricts FWP from requiring any cooperation from private landowners. But without access, it’s impossible to control the hundreds to thousands of elk that harbor on private land, especially when some eastern Montana ranches cover hundreds of square miles, such as the Wilks Brothers N Bar Ranch. It leaves FWP with no option but to give control to the landowners, and in some cases, that would result in privatization of wildlife.

Those who have followed the history of eastern Montana elk management over the past two decades have seen the formation of UPOM after FWP went from unlimited to limited permits in the Missouri Breaks region in 2007. Since then, UPOM’s challenges to hunting regulations have ramped up, from lobbying the FWP commission to backing bills in the 2021 Legislature and then lobbying the new FWP director.

In 2010, Montana voters backed the rights of resident hunters and approved a ballot initiative to abolish outfitter-sponsored licenses and raise the cost of nonresident licenses. Kurt Kephart of Montana Public Wildlife called the outfitter license a “dedicated license for the wealthy non-resident.”

So UPOM has lobbied for landowner-sponsored licenses and tried to get rid of permit limits in places like the Missouri Breaks. The lawsuit indicates UPOM expected things to swing in their favor with the election of Gov. Greg Gianforte and Kristen Juras, saying “The election of a new administration in 2021 and the appointment of a new FWP director suggested there might be a change in elk management.”

In the 2021 Legislature, UPOM director and lobbyist Chuck Denowh backed House Bill 417, which would have allowed unlimited elk permits in the same dozen or so eastern Montana districts where elk are over population objectives. Denowh is a former Montana Republican Party executive director, head of the GOP caucus in the Legislature and had campaign roles with state attorney general Tim Fox and U.S. Sen. Steve Daines.

Over the past year, FWP Director Hank Worsech has introduced last minute-proposals to the FWP commission to essentially do the same thing as House Bill 417. While the lawsuit praises Worsech’s efforts, it lays the blame for the proposal failures at the feet of  “a mutiny of entrenched employees within the Department who undermined the recommendations and Commissioners who decided to ignore the law.”

That ignores the continuous pushback that came from resident hunters who testified and kept the phones ringing during the Legislature and at commission meetings. In December, Worsech dubbed hunter pushback against one of his changes to the Missouri Breaks elk regulations as a “firestorm.”

Some of those hunters are now part of the coalition intervening in the UPOM lawsuit, which seeks to give UPOM landowners and the Legislature ultimate control over wildlife decisions, saying the commission can’t set policy. It also asks the court to rule that FWP does not have to be equitable in its decisions.

“Defendants lack the authority to regulate hunting based on ‘Equitable allocation of resource,’ perceived notions of ‘wealth’ of hunters, ‘privatization of public resource’ or similar political arguments,” the lawsuit said.

Chris Servheen, Montana Wildlife Federation board chair, said the FWP commission’s authority in the hunting season setting process has been established for decades.

“To suddenly try to throw out years of hard work and wisdom from scientists, agency professionals, duly appointed fish and wildlife commissioners, and engaged citizens is simply wrong. What this lawsuit seeks to do is what UPOM has failed to do at the legislature: turn elk hunting into a rich man’s game in Montana. UPOM couldn't get its way in the legislature or the commission, and now instead of talking with those they disagree with, they filed a lawsuit. Elk in Montana belong to the public, not to wealthy special interests.”

In a recent opinion piece, Denowh said it made no sense to limit elk permits when HD 417 has 4,300 elk, 10 times the population objective calculated in the 2005 Elk Management Plan. He doesn’t mention how many of those elk are harbored on private land.

“This situation exposes a flaw in how we set wildlife policy in Montana. There is an imbalance between the people who are materially affected by wildlife management decisions — ranchers — because they are outnumbered by the beneficiaries — hunters.

Fortunately, our law is set up to protect the minority. Suing to fix mismanagement of elk is the extreme option — but it’s where we ended up after exhausting all other options,” Denowh wrote.

A third party can intervene in a lawsuit if they may be affected by the outcome of the case without their interests being adequately represented. That is a possibility for Montana’s hunters, who have lost some faith that FWP’s leadership would defend resident sportsmen.

In addition to the FWP director appearing to favor UPOM’s efforts, the FWP legal department is in shambles, having lost its top two attorneys. FWP lead council Becky Dockter left FWP in the past few months, and now works for the city of Helena. During the same time, attorney Aimee Hawkaluk left to work with the Public Service Commission. Attorney Ben Reed left a year ago.

However, in the UPOM case, it’s likely the Montana Attorney General’s Office would represent FWP. That worries people like Jayson O’Neill, because he questions the Gianforte administration’s loyalties. A former aide to Gov. Brian Schweitzer and until recently the director of the Western Values Project, O’Neill sued the governor’s office  in October after the governor’s office refused his public records request for agency bill monitoring forms from the 2021 Legislature, citing attorney-client privilege.

On May 24, O’Neill sent three other records requests asking for any communications between UPOM, specifically Denowh and UPOM lobbyist Shelby DeMars, and anyone in the offices of the governor, the attorney general or FWP. He asked for any references but especially those related to UPOM’s bison lawsuit filed in March 2020, also in the Fergus County court.

UPOM challenged a FWP bison management plan that could eventually establish a free-roaming bison herd somewhere in Montana, with a likely spot being the Charles Russell Wildlife Refuge adjacent to the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument. In April 2021, four months into his term, Gianforte settled with UPOM, agreeing to kill the plan and not pursue another for a decade.

“There has been concern with the close relationship between certain entities in UPOM and this governor’s office and FWP. How the bison settlement came to be is potentially what this (elk) outcome could be,” O’Neill said. “They may be able to claim a legal loophole to not release communications related to the elk lawsuit, but the bison lawsuit is over. What is the thought of the Gianforte administration when it comes to public hunting opportunities and wildlife management? What we’ve seen is a lot of backroom deals and decisions that aren’t making sense.”

Pointing out that lawsuits against the state are usually filed in Lewis and Clark County, hunters suggest that UPOM did some forum shopping, where plaintiffs chose a court that is more likely to give them a favorable outcome. The lawsuit says UPOM chose the Fergus County court because they’re challenging FWP’s management mainly in hunting district 417 in Fergus County.

While UPOM also chose the Fergus County court in 2020 for the bison lawsuit, recent events are adding a new twist.

Judge Jon Oldenburg will be retiring in July, and thanks to a law passed by the 2021 Legislature, Gianforte will appoint the next judge of Fergus, Judith Basin and Petroleum counties who will oversee the elk lawsuit. Prior to 2021, a judicial nominating commission appointed all Montana district judges. Gianforte has yet to select the incoming judge from a list of applicants and nominees.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at