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FWP commission OK’s late request for shoulder season

The Fish, Wildlife & Parks commission approved a late elk season under questionable circumstances, further signaling that Gov. Greg Gianforte’s new customer-service framework could favor landowners and outfitters over sportsmen.

On Monday, FWP chief of staff Quentin Kujala asked the commission to approve the addition of another week of shoulder season in elk hunting district 580 “in the spirit of customer service.” The commission did, by a vote of 3-2, with Gianforte’s new nominees voting in favor.

Kujala said landowners in HD 580 had requested the shoulder season be allowed to run past the Jan. 15 cutoff. FWP doesn’t normally consider such a change, but the mild winter could have limited the elk harvest, Kujala said.

“It’s a director’s office decision. We’re bringing you a mini-season setting for the next seven days,” Kujala said.

Hunting District 580 extends north of Big Timber to the Musselshell River and includes the Crazy Mountains. But the commission’s decision could set a precedent for future elk management statewide, which bothered Andrew McKean, who joined the commission early last fall.

“This appears to be a request for the commission to micro-manage. I’m a little worried about the precedent it sets – that any time the conditions may change in a previously approved structure, an exemption will come before the commission,” McKean said. “Can we expect to see another request come through on Wednesday and another on Thursday?”

FWP Operations chief Mike Volesky said the request was a one-off. The department wanted to act, even if it violated process, out of fears about what the Legislature might do if it didn’t, Volesky said.

“We’re talking that tension between consistency and flexibility,” Volesky said. “We need to sometimes show that, yes, we’re going to jump out of what is normal process and get the job done and be responsible to landowners, despite the veering from process or normal circumstance.”

The meeting was short-notice, announced at the end of last week, so the commissioners had little information to go on. Patrick Byorth, a two-year veteran of the commission, said shoulder seasons are a contentious issue, so he felt unprepared to make a fair and informed decision without more information.

The three new commissioners weren’t as familiar with shoulder seasons, which allow elk hunting before and after the five-week general season, and therefore didn’t understand the controversy.

On October 2015, after receiving more than 1,100 public comments, the FWP commission reluctantly approved the use of elk shoulder seasons as an effort to reduce the number of elk that overpopulate some hunting districts. FWP had used shoulder seasons before but abandoned them in 2006 after they proved ineffective.

A primary cause of elk overpopulation is private-land harboring during the fall hunting season. The most effective way to control the population is to have a lot of hunters spread across the land during the general season, filling their tags and moving the elk around.

But some landowners either don’t want any hunting or want to sell hunts on their land to make money. Either way, elk harbor where they’re safer, so public hunters kill fewer and the population grows.

In 2015, public hunters didn’t want to return to shoulder seasons without a condition that landowners provide more public access. So FWP said shoulder seasons would continue only in districts where hunters could kill enough elk during the regular season to equal half of that year’s elk calves. That large a harvest is only possible with private land access.

FWP set a trial period of three years, starting in August 2016, during which FWP would gather elk data to see which districts met the criteria. The trial period is over, and notably, HD 580 has not met the criteria, mainly because few landowners have allowed access. The elk population is now 450% over objective.

Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock warned the commission that the shoulder seasons were performance-based for a reason: public hunter acceptance.

“It’s important to note that some of the landowners who are requesting this are restricting access to public land. In fact, they have outfitting operations on that public land, and that’s impeding harvest in the fall,” Gevock said.

Byorth asked why FWP couldn’t use a damage or management hunt. Kujala only said the extra week wouldn’t preclude damage hunts.

FWP provides damage and management hunts upon request to landowners who have problems with game damaging their property or eating their feed. FWP keeps a list of hunters who can respond rapidly when the situation arises.

But that list would limit the hunt to residents who signed up months ahead of time. Meanwhile, a longer shoulder season would allow anyone with a district elk tag to hunt, including outfitter customers.

One of the main outfitters in HD580 who stands to benefit from the longer shoulder season is Chuck Rein, the president of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, who runs Anchor Outfitting in the Crazy Mountains. In November, Gianforte appointed Rein to the advisory committee who selected the FWP director.

Before hearing public comment, newly assigned commissioner Pat Tabor, also an outfitter, encouraged the commission to approve the shoulder season.

“One of the things the public wants to see, and certainly the department has been mandated through our new governor, is the customer service orientation as well as improving overall relationships with landowners,” Tabor said. “The flexibility has to happen.”

During public comment, former commission chair Dan Vermillion didn’t agree, especially since the fall weather wasn’t overly warm and didn’t affect just one district.

“You will find there is a perception that the department is not flexible enough and that we listen too much to certain landowners and not enough to the sportsmen,” Vermillion said. “Being a commissioner is about balance. Extending a season where it’s been closed for three weeks and the conditions for an extension are not met, I would encourage you to use other tools like game damage and management hunts.”

Veteran commissioners Byorth and McKean voted against the proposal.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.