Hunters oppose bill giving elk tags to large landowners, commercializing wildlife

The first hearing on an unvetted bill that would allot 10 non-resident elk tags per large landowner showed that even the bill’s supporters weren’t sure it would do much to address elk overpopulation.

“We rise in support of this because of the fundamental notion that it’s incentive-based. I don’t really know if this will drive landowners together. I mean, the Hatfields and McCoys, are they really going to get together over 10 elk tags?” said Mack Minard, Montana Outfitters and Guides Associate executive director. “The concept is good. Whether this thing is capable of getting it done or not remains to be seen.”

During Tuesday’s hearing of House Bill 505, it took two hours for the five proponents and 31 opponents talk about what they thought Rep. Wylie Galt’s bill would do to elk and elk hunting in Montana. Another 15 people waiting in the Zoom queue had to just add their names to the roster of opponents after the chair of the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks committee asked people not to comment if they didn’t have anything new to add.

Galt said nothing to introduce his bill, preferring to pass the baton to FWP Director Hank Worsech, who spoke briefly before handing off to FWP Chief of Staff Quentin Kujala, who came up with the details of the bill.

Those details include giving each landowner with more than 640 acres the ability to name 10 non-residents to receive either-sex elk tags to hunt on their land, as long as the elk population in their district is “at objective,” or sustainable level based on human tolerance. Worsech said this was an incentive for landowners to help to reduce the elk population.

Kujala said landowners would be given non-resident tags because resident hunters have more opportunity to buy tags. But hunters like Greg Scheeler of Helena said it’s because non-resident hunters will pay the most money.

Also, hunters who choose to shoot cow elk instead of bulls on private land in districts where the elk population is over objective would earn five bonus points toward the chance to get rare game tags. Many hunters opposed that because it would upend the current bonus system where hunters can get one point a year, and it awards five bonus points whether a hunter kills a cow elk or not.

Finally, the bill permanently extends the season on private lands from Aug 15 to Feb 15, while the normal season is five weeks from the end of October through November. This, in essence, makes permanent the three-year trial period of shoulder seasons, which was somewhat successful in some districts and not in others.

“This is a bill we worked with the speaker on, so we’re going to own this,” Worsech said. “My goal as a director is to never come here in front of you and talk elk again. I want to make sure that we can do something to bring numbers down with the department managing rather than come to the Legislature to do that.”

Montana Stockgrowers Association spokesman Jay Bodner said the bill at least brought groups together to talk about the concept of the bill, but he acknowledged that elk management is complex, varies by location and has been an issue for a long time.

“We think this is a good start, we think this is a good concept,” Bodner said.

The surprise came when the United Property Owners of Montana opposed the bill. Executive director Chuck Denowh said his group likes incentives but was opposed because they want more: every large landowner – especially in the 27 bull-limited districts where there are too many elk – should get 10 tags.

Three-quarters of the elk districts are over-populated, and the bill does nothing to fix that problem, Denowh said.

“We have districts where there are six and seven times more elk than they’re supposed to have,” Denowh said. “With this framework, this bill doesn’t accomplish very much.”

But that’s precisely the kind of thing that hunters don’t want to see.

Bozeman hunter Randy Newberg, host of the “On Your Own Adventures” television show, has served on many citizens committees related to elk since 1973 and pointed out that FWP has historically sponsored only bills recommended by citizen committees or the FWP commission.

“This bill, and its huge change in elk management, was drafted by FWP without any input from the hunters of Montana. It was only recently that a few groups were informed of FWP’s intention to bring this bill forward without the normal public input and vetting process,” Newberg said. “Lack of input and lack of public involvement has resulted in a very unfavorable bill.”

Worsech said the agency usually goes through a long vetting process of several months before bringing a bill to the Legislature. He said he knows no hunters support the bill but blamed that on misunderstanding.

“This was not brought forward by the department. This is (Galt’s) bill – he asked us to help him on that,” Worsech said. “We were remiss in not having the ability to bring all the parties together because of the timing and how it came to us.”

Justin Schaaf was one of 14 members of the Montana Elk Council Citizens Advisory Group that just finalized guidance for the upcoming elk management plan, which will set new population objectives. If that plan creates higher objectives, more districts could qualify for the 10 tags proposed in the bill.

“HB 505 would sidestep the hard work that took place on that council and stands in direct contrast to what many Montanans want. This bill will have generational consequences, and I believe it will harm Montana’s hunting heritage forever,” Schaaf said. “Montanans work best when we work together.”

Many hunters said commercializing wildlife by promising tags to landowners goes against the century-old North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, which protects wildlife from being killed for profit.

Worsech said it was just a model that can be interpreted in different ways.

“Texas will tell you they’re following the North American Model, so will Utah, so will Wyoming, so will Nevada,” Worsech said. “This (bill) is just an idea that was thrown forward. This body can change it, do whatever they need to do. It is a starting point to get people talking and working together. Under the amount of time we had, this is where we’re at.”

No action was taken on the bill.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.