Viewpoint: Political opportunism in Helena adding to Montana’s elk hunting woes

Elk hunting is everything to Montanans. We guard our vacation days with jealousy in anticipation of elk camp deep in the forests or Breaks country. We choose our sick days wisely and work hard for just the chance of harvesting an elk.

Elk hunting is where our families make memories and traditions while hoping to fill the freezer for the coming winter. Even our clothing reflects our love of hunting elk on public lands. Unfortunately, these traditions are in danger of changing forever or, in some cases, disappearing forever.

Private lands are changing hands, access to prime hunting land is becoming more difficult, and elk congregate where they know they are safe. Meanwhile, a Montana public land hunter has a roughly 13% chance of putting a bull elk in a freezer, and according to FWP data, one district in NW Montana takes more than 530 hunter days to harvest a single elk.

Six months of constant pressure from hunters, more gates and no trespassing signs than ever, changing habitat, increased development on winter range, and the monetization of the resource has created quite the predicament.

Further complicating the issue is the fact that our wildlife – as guaranteed by Montana’s constitution – is publicly owned, and their management is to be a shared responsibility. They are not to be owned and sold by private interests. Dramatic changes in elk management have Montanans concerned. But, unfortunately, on top of all of the other factors, political opportunism impacting our wildlife management has become the standard operating procedure for the legislature.

Since 2011, 489 bills have been introduced on wildlife issues, and 906 bills have been drafted. That doesn’t count the budget bills that would defund wildlife management or habitat work, legislation that threatened public lands, bills that tried to eliminate the citizens’ voice in management decisions while amplifying the power of politicians and the unelected bureaucrats that are beholden to them.

As we saw during the last legislative session, politicians continue to think they know better than Montanans who spend months outdoors hunting, fishing, and exploring our public lands. Think tanks spend countless hours and dollars spinning new ways to make Montana more like Texas, where wildlife is a commodity and not part of the public trust. This isn’t the Montana way. Conflict and anger might be potent political currencies of our times, but it doesn’t have to be, at least not for Montana’s elk.

For more than 150 years, Montanans have worked together to find consensus paths forward that keep the public trust intact and ensure that future generations of Montanans will have the same opportunities to fill their freezers. While some elected leaders may benefit from conflict, we believe that most Montanans are tired of it; it’s time to sit down together, without interference from politicians and narrow, big-moneyed interests, and find a better path forward.

Our elk management must return to being for all Montanans, not just the wealthy. We don’t expect elk hunting ever to be easy. Like so many things in life, Montanans know we’ll have to earn it. But our opportunity should always remain. Help us keep it that way.

To ensure that our voices – and your voice – are heard, we are forming a coalition to develop a citizens elk management proposal. To learn more, and become involved in this effort, visit www.montanaelk.org.

Marcus Strange, Director of State Policy and Government Relations at Montana Wildlife Federation, Helena; Garrett Ouldhouse, President Anaconda Sportsmen’s Cluba; Jeremy Garness, President Great Falls Archery Club; Nick Siebrase, Conservation Director at Bearpaw Bowmen, Havre; Justin Schaaf, President Keep It Public; JW Westman, Conservation Director at Laurel Rod & Gun Club; Bill Siebrase, President Bridger Bowmen; John B. Sullivan III, Board Chair Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, Missoula; Kathy Hadley Montana Artemis Alliance, Missoula; Jim Vashro, President Flathead Wildlife Inc.; Andrew McKean, Former Fish and Wildlife Commissioner, Glasgow; Les Castren, President Skyline Sportsmen’s Association, Butte; Joey Bauman, President Park County Rod and Gun Club, Livingston; Walker Conyngham, President Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, Missoula; Tony Jones, President Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, Hamilton; Steve Platt, President Helena Hunters and Anglers, Helena; Dane Rider, Secretary Traditional Bowhunters of Montana, Dillon; Clint Nagel, President Gallatin Wildlife Association, Bozeman