Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A whole lotta Bull

For over 70 years, Montanans have been managing wildlife through a Commission of citizens expressly convened to ride herd over the agency tasked with the day-to-day mechanics of wildlife management. Today, that means five people sit in judgment over the one state agency that goes above and beyond all others when it comes to public input and participation. These five folks are appointed by the Governor. The concepts that led us to a citizen commission to keep the wildlife agencies out of the general appropriations process has proved itself time and time again. The idea was to keep political influences out of the decision-making process when it comes to wildlife management. For the most part, this has insulated Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks from being held hostage by those who would usurp the public trust in favor of short-term economic gains while excluding the public from their own resource: Elk.

No greater example of why this system is needed was evidenced during the last legislative session, where over 250 bills were introduced that dealt with fish and wildlife issues. These were bills that would have classified Mountain Lions as predators (say goodbye to quality cat hunting), negated the Montana wolf management (and negated the Simpson/Tester delisting rider), eliminated the authority of FWP Wardens to aggressively seek out and catch poachers, and a whole host of other poorly thought out, misguided and outright hostile bills. It would have made Montana look more like Texas than, well, Montana.

Now, I don’t always agree with the Commission’s decisions, but at least I have the option of participating in the process and letting my voice be heard. We almost lost that voice in the spring of 2011 during the 62nd Montana State Legislature. However, something pretty damned cool happened: people participated in democracy. Thankfully, they continue to participate.

Currently, FWP is looking for comments on a suite of alternatives to the always-controversial elk archery issue in the Missouri River Breaks including 22 hunt districts outside of the Breaks (and really, most of eastern Montana). These areas are prized hunting destinations for residents and non-residents alike. They’re also some of the most heavily leased lands in MT. Not all of these areas are leased by outfitters; many are leased by hunt clubs or individuals. Both resident and non-residents are actively trying to shore up hunting access and keep it to themselves.

Now, I have no problem if a ranch wants to lease its hunting rights. That’s their business. Private land is private land. Sometimes though, the decisions made based solely on economic gain come back and bite everyone in the ass. In this case, elk populations are over objective due in part to leasing. Elk are over objective in many areas. The business decisions made by ranchers who lease can have a direct impact on their neighbors in the form of increased elk herds which can cause major private property damage to fences, crops and irrigation structures, decreased access for resident hunters, over-crowding, and lead to the idea that mature, antlered elk as an economic driver. In turn, a loophole in the statute that dictates 10% of the hunting opportunity is allocated to non-residents was exploited, and some areas that are heavily leased are comprised primarily of outfitted non-resident archery hunters (C’mon, let’s be honest: how many archery hunters do you know are out there to harvest a cow elk?). That’s the exact thing that Commissions were set up to get away from: market hunting.

While today’s market hunting looks different than the market hunting that shot out of game herds and flocks in the 19th century, it has a chilling effect on the ability of the public to manage, utilize and enjoy the public’s wildlife. It creates a class of landed gentry that controls wildlife, much like the European model.

FWP is forwarding five proposals to deal with the elk archery issue. Here they are, straight from the mouth of FWP:

• The Commission approved recommendations for adjustments to archery seasons in and outside of the Missouri Breaks. The following review of recommendations from the Elk Archery Working Group added another set of either-sex archery permits to each of the bundles in and out of the Breaks. The permits would be available through the drawing as a first and only choice and be valid only on private land outside BMA's in a specific bundle. A person holding one of these permits could not hunt an antlered bull elk in any other hunting district during any other season that license year. For 2012-2013 these permits would be available through the drawings in an unlimited fashion. His will help to determine the appropriate number of limited permits needed to accommodate the number of nonresidents equal to the number of outfitted nonresident elk archery hunters into these bundles in 2007. These permits would remain in place in any district if the elk population objective was met or maintained or if an annual harvest prescription was met. Other alternatives include:
o Status quo
o Status quo with potential adjustment to bundles and permit numbers,
o Adjust the working group recommendation to include mandatory reporting and antlerless only on private land,
o Retain the 2007 season structure

Get your comments in folks. This system only works when you participate. HB 361, SB 255, and HB 285 were the direct result of the elk archery issue. Resident hunters broke the capitol’s internet and flooded the phone lines defending the Commission and the democratic allocation of the wildlife resource from the privateers. Now is not the time to go back to sleep.

The fallout from this issue led FWP to establish an Elk Archery Working Group. Unfortunately, the outcome of this group has led to more polarization and conflict. I don’t think the folks involved were trying to do anything other than find a solution to a difficult problem, both politically and socially. Those folks should be commended for giving up their time and tackling a tough, nasty issue.

The final proposal sets forward a concept that Montana hunters have steadfastly refused to endorse, one user group getting preferential treatment in terms of allocating the resource. The proposal calls for providing either sex permits for private lands that are not involved in Block Management. The proposal is viewed by many within the resident hunting community as the first step down the road towards Ranching for Wildlife, or another scheme to privatize a public resource: Elk. Again, we commend the efforts of the working group but a solution that benefits all user groups is much more desired.

Fight back. Take charge of the destiny of elk hunting in central and eastern Montana. Those critters exist not for the benefit of one or two user groups but for all. They exist because we all (outfitters, landowners, and hunters) work together as stewards, and we manage them for the continued propagation of the species just as much as we manage them for the immediate desire to stick an arrow, or a bullet in them. We seem to forget that we are here to benefit all wildlife, and not the other way around.

Visit FWP's survey monkey to voice your opinion

*Photo by Branden VanDyken, owner of Be The Decoy Archery gear. Made in Montana!

1 comment:

  1. Please get your comments in folks, this has everything to do keeping your wildlife (the Public's Wildlife) public. Don't let the privateers have their way with what is ours (the Ordinary Montanans). JW Westman