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Wildlife watch: elk management under advisement

This story is an excerpt from the MT Lowdowna weekly newsletter summary that shows a more personal side of Montana Free Press coverage.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks released a list of proposals from the 12 members last week citizen elk management advisory groupwho had the task of bringing “fresh eyes” moose management issues. FWP employees evaluated each of the 15 proposals to understand implementation, funding requirements and any conflicts – legal or otherwise – can inspire if implemented.

One of the recommendations likely to generate controversy is titled “choose your weapon/season”. It is intended to reduce crowds by reducing the number of fighters in the field at any given time. If implemented, hunters should decide to hunt during rifle season or archery season, but not both. FWP’s enforcement department noted that it is “probably very unpopular with the public and could lead to additional ‘opportunistic’ violations.”

Another recommendation likely to shake up the pot, titled “we need to manage moose where they aren’t,” aims to address lower moose populations in northwestern Montana by engaging in more aggressive predator management. It asks FWP to reduce wolf and black bear populations by extending the seasons they can be hunted and consider the use of activities such as aerial hunting of wolves in areas where moose are covered by the population targets.

The group also advised FWP to develop a cow-only label for hunters pursuing their prey on private land. It would be offered in districts where moose exceed population targets. FWP employees expressed concern that this could confuse hunters by defying the department’s efforts to streamline and simplify regulations, stating that access to private property, not tags, the problem is that needs to be solved.

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Elk management in the crosshairs

When Henry “Hank” Worsech took over from FWP, Governor Greg Gianforte tasked him with finding a new approach to balancing the concerns of landowners with the opportunities for hunters. In the wake of Worsech’s attempt to shake up the status quo, the department has been pushed into a lawsuit as fighters organize ahead of the 2023 legislative session.

A recommendation that focuses on “damage hunting” would allow landowners to pull from a list of resident hunters they trust to quickly address food loss issues. The group also advised FWP to develop an educational course focused on landowner relations and hunting ethics to address some of the concerns landowners have expressed about opening up their properties to the hunting public. After completing the course, participants would have more extensive access to hunt on the property of willing landowners.

Proposals likely to generate minimal controversy include efforts to develop user-friendly data collection methods, create a landowner liaison position to work with FWP, encourage collaboration between state and federal land managers, and where possible establish localized moose working groups.

Implementation of all 15 recommendations would require an additional 17.5 full-time equivalents and $12.4 million in state special revenue in fiscal 2024, and $9.7 million per year thereafter, as well as approximately $400,000 in federal special revenue per year. FWP employees expect targeted game damage tags to bring in about $55,000 in revenue each year.

More than three quarters of the total price tag would go to giving the in-depth course. In addition to online classes, participants are expected to complete a marksmanship and field training course.

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The department will accept comments on the group’s proposals until October 14.

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