Access to our favorite lands for hunting and fishing in Montana is ever-changing and always of passionate interest. Public lands are used more, while access to private properties that we have historically enjoyed and perhaps taken for granted is being challenged. Factors contributing to this situation include changes in agricultural property ownership, landowner fatigue from hunter pressures and behavior, financial stress to agricultural operations, and habitat/range areas in public lands.
The Private Land/Public Wildlife (PL/PW) Advisory Board, appointed by Governor Gianforte and made up of athletes, landowners and retailers, is tasked with reviewing hunter access programs, assessing hunter-landowner-supplier relationships and making recommendations for improvement and development thereof. Throughout 2022, we reviewed all access programs and made the following recommendations to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Montana Legislature and Gov. Gianforte.
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With over 7 million acres enrolled, the Block Management (BMA) program is very popular among resident and non-resident hunters. Satisfaction of hunters and landowners remains high. There is a high demand from the public and pressure on the resource. PL/PW identified the need to make Block Management payments to employees more financially competitive with current values. The annual payment total is limited to $25,000. There were 1,308 landowners contracting more than 603,507 hunter days in 2022. Twenty is above the limit, calculated at $13 per hunter day (1,923 hunter days). PL/PW through FWP has recommended raising the limit to $50,000 per year. If passed by the 2023 legislature, we believe this increase will make the payment more reflective of the current impact/access market value, while encouraging long-term associates to remain in the program and encouraging new enrollees to enroll .
The Elk Hunting Access (EHA) Agreement Program, also known as “454 Agreements,” was created by the 2001 Legislature when it passed HB 454. The original 454 Agreements (passed in 2001) allowed a landowner to have a moose license/permit valid only on their property in exchange for allowing four public (bull) hunters of either sex. It garnered little interest. In response to the low participation and to encourage more landowner participation to increase public access, in 2021 HB 637 changed the ratio from 4:1 to 3:1 for each landowner permit received and allowed the landowner to choose the first public hunter. Hunters, at the discretion of the landowner, were allowed to harvest a bull or moose without antlers. These changes attracted 13 landowners in 2021, with family members or full-time employees receiving 28 non-transferable moose permits/permits of both sexes. The cooperating landowners allowed a minimum of 84 public hunters. All allowed at least one hunter of either sex and two elk hunters without antlers on their property. In addition, some landowners collectively allowed about 742 additional moose hunters on their properties. While somewhat controversial, the result has opened up more opportunities for public hunters where access was previously unavailable and increased moose harvesting. PL/PW has recommended amending the current EHA agreement to make the first public hunter a “like tag or permit” randomly selected by FWP.
Other recent concerns relate to efforts to address the issue of hunter behavior and ultimately hunter-landowner relationships. While only a small percentage of hunters engage in bad behaviors such as trespassing and road damage, the consequences of these behaviors affect every hunter. Much discussion and work has gone into providing improved hunter education to address these concerns and possibly requiring it to access private property in programs such as Block Management. Would tougher penalties for violations be effective?
The interaction and relationships between hunters, landowners, and shopkeepers are critical to the successful management of all wildlife in our great state. The unique composition of Montana’s private and public lands requires that we all “work together” to achieve the best outcome. We all need to understand the issues and challenges, get to the bottom of the facts, give our input and then listen to each other to form good ideas and create sustainable solutions. We look forward to your comments and thoughts in future PLPW meetings.
This post written by Paul Ellis, Dale Tribby and Ed Beall on behalf of the members of the Public Wildlife Private Lands Committee: Drew Steinberger, Billings; Lee Cornwell, Glasgow; Rich Roth, Big Sandy; Donna McDonald, Alder; Rod Paschke, Jordan; Everett Headley, Stevensville; Ed Beall (Chairman), Helena; Dale Tribby, Miles City; Cynthia Cohan, Butte; Tierani Brusett, Billings; Raymond Rugg, superior; Eric Albus, Hinsdale; Paul Ellis, Bozeman.