Science, data behind FWP proposals get less emphasis under Gianforte
From wolf hunts to otter trapping, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is proposing several changes to wildlife management without providing biological information to back them up.
Over the past few months, FWP top managers have said that science, particularly long-term studies, would play far less of a role in wildlife management under the Gianforte administration.
The result might resemble Thursday’s seven-hour FWP commission meeting, where not only the public complained that several proposals lacked scientific justification, but the commissioners also said more data on wolves and elk would help them make a more informed decision.
The department’s pullback on science was revealed in mid-May, when FWP Chief of Staff Quentin Kujala told the Missoulian that FWP was no longer supporting thorough research.
“We are moving away from longer-term projects — things longer than a (college student’s) master's project. It’s a course adjustment tied to our new director,” Kujala told the Missoulian.
Master’s degree projects last only one to two seasons. That’s sufficient to train a new scientist and answer a focused question. But often, wildlife research requires more than a one-year snapshot, because some species move across the landscape, and different years produce different environmental conditions. Long-term studies are necessary to provide enough observations to overcome the variability that often exists in biology.
Because of its past dedication to science, Montana used to have a nationwide reputation for its quality research on a wide variety of species, and FWP had no problem attracting the best and brightest young biologists. Now, that might be changing.
At Thursday’s meeting, questions about research first arose in a discussion of the nongame check-off work plan. When Montanans pay income tax, they can opt to have some of their tax refund go toward FWP’s management of nongame species. The nongame program raises about $30,000 to $40,000 a year.
Commissioner Patrick Byorth, the only commissioner with biological experience, asked FWP administrator Ken McDonald how the agency’s policy shift against research would affect nongame monitoring and research.
McDonald only said $5,000 in the nongame budget would go a long way to helping a graduate student work on a nongame-related issue.
Biological information was ignored or completely missing from two subsequent proposals that the commission voted to forward for public comment.
One proposal would pay landowners to raise captive pheasants to be released on private land and wildlife management areas to provide hunting opportunity, particularly for youth. The proposal said part of the intent was to “enhance the pheasant population,” but some commenters said that never happens.
“This hasn’t worked in the past, and it won’t work today. We feel this is throwing money down a rat hole, and it’s not managing wildlife at all,” said Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock. “There’s also a disease issue at times. We feel like we’ve gone full circle - we shut down the state pheasant farm for a reason. I understand it’s not the stated purpose, but the survival rate of these planted birds is so low that it’s a waste of money.”
McDonald said the survival rate is low because the birds are pen-raised so “it’s a mixed bag,” but a percentage of the Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program funds is already set aside for pheasant stocking.
The other proposal would raise the trapping quota for otters to 40 each in Regions 1 and 2, an increase of 27 over last year. McDonald said the department doesn’t have any population data, so it based the decision on how many and what age of otters trappers were catching. Later, Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, said the Montana Trappers Association, not the department, created the proposal. Fielder is a former Trappers Association district director.
“We came up with the recommendation,” Fielder said. “What we have is a five-and-a-half month otter season from Nov. 1 to April 15. In Region 1, (the quota) traditionally met early in December. If you’re meeting a quota in the first month of the season, that generally means you have more animals out there than you thought.”
Other commenters argued that the quota increase was based on assumptions, not hard data. Otters are often killed in beaver traps and face a tough year with this summer’s low streamflows and high temperatures, so such a big quota jump could add insult to injury.
“MWF supports well-regulated trapping, but do we have any data here other than anecdotal evidence? Whose professional opinion is this, and where’s the data?” Gevock said. “We should not be increasing the quota on an animal unless (FWP) have the data to show it’s sustainable, and they clearly haven’t done that.”
But the two biggest issues that both commenters and commissioners said needed better data and science dealt with wolf and elk shoulder seasons.
The department proposes extending elk shoulder seasons until Feb. 15 in 18 hunting districts that have too many elk.
Shoulder seasons are a sore point with resident hunters, because the program was set up to not only try to reduce the number of elk in overpopulated districts but also improve hunter access to private land. Access would be demonstrated by hunters being able to tag during the five-week general season at least 50% of the elk killed in a district.
In every affected district, elk populations are over objective because private landowners either don’t like hunting or harbor elk so they can outfit hunts. Either way, not enough elk are killed during the archery and regular season. So the populations continue to grow, often becoming a nuisance to adjacent landowners who then demand action.
Resident hunters argue that shoulder seasons shouldn’t be used to provide outfitters with more opportunity to sell hunts or to compensate for a lack of public access during the regular season. Plus, they don’t like pushing the season later into the winter when sows are carrying fetuses.
So six years ago, after reviewing 1,100 comments, the FWP commission reluctantly agreed to try shoulder seasons for a three-year period, after which both hunter access and elk population data would be evaluated to see if both goals were being reached. On Thursday, Big Game chief Brian Wakeling said the department had chosen not to look at whether landowners were complying with their part of the bargain.
Gevock pointed out that the public still has not seen the most recent data, so the public didn’t have enough information to comment and the department shouldn’t be expanding the program.
“This is another step toward privatizing management and game farming,” Gevock said. “It’s clear you’re just throwing out the rules with shoulder seasons.”
Finally, as the commission considered new wolf regulations, the other commissioners started asking for more data.
The department asked the commission to select from a number of options which new hunting and trapping methods they’d like to propose. The options included hunting with lights at night, baiting and snaring, all methods that are now allowed by laws passed by the 2021 Legislature. They could also consider eliminating the quotas in the districts next to national parks.
Byorth suggested all be considered except for night hunting, which is the least ethical of all the options, but no one supported his proposal. Commissioner Brian Cebull said he wanted to put everything out to the public.
Not surprisingly, many people wanted to comment on the proposals. So Commission Chair Leslie Robinson limited each side to 20 minutes saying the department would provide plenty of opportunity to comment before the commission made its decision in August.
Twelve people spoke in opposition to any new methods to kill wolves with another two-dozen adding their names as opponents. Many mentioned the lack of science to justify a large increase in wolf kills.
Only Fielder spoke in support of the proposals, having sponsored the bills that extended the wolf season and allowed snaring. Later, Rick Hawk of the Montana Fur Harvesters added his name in support.
During the Legislature, Fielder said he wanted the wolf population reduced to the bare minimum for recovery set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: 150 wolves and 15 breeding pairs. Part of the reason is he believes wolves have limited elk populations, particularly Region 1 in northwestern Montana. But many pointed out he has no data to back that up.
Region 1 Wildlife Manager Neil Anderson also said elk recruitment has historically been low in northwestern Montana.
After hearing all the claims of the need for shoulder seasons to reduce elk populations, Commissioners Pat Tabor and Brian Cebull both said they would like to see a map showing wolf density versus elk density or that of other ungulates in Regions 1, 2 and 3.
“I’m real curious if there are areas of high wolf density that also have high populations or even overpopulations of elk. I don’t mean by region but more specific areas. I don’t know if that data is available or not,” Cebull said. “I want to look at it a little more spatially and try to understand what that picture looks like.”
McDonald said he’d see what the department could come up with. But the department doesn’t have data like that.
The state is no longer required to census wolves as it did for five years after the wolf was delisted. It now uses a computer model to estimate wolf abundance. That model currently shows Montana’s wolf population to be stable to slightly declining, but only by region. In addition, Region 1 doesn’t have many elk counts. Only one district has good count data, according to Anderson.
Commenter Mica Costeruz said elk haven’t been counted in more than a decade in three of the five Region 1 elk districts that are considered below elk objective.
To provide the information the commissioners have requested, the department would have to invest in better wolf and elk counts. In this case, the resulting data would likely show that science conflicts with what the Legislature demands.
“We left some discretion up to the department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks and the commission. But if you do not address the wolves in Regions 1, 2 and 3 where 90% of the wolves are, you’re failing to meet the Legislative intent,” Fielder s