Thinning ungulates 

How many elk is too many elk?

In an effort to trim elk numbers around the state, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) has proposed overhauling elk-hunting regulations to consolidate hunting opportunities during the annual five-week general season. A series of meetings has begun throughout the state to gauge public opinion, and while many are voicing support for the changes, at least two concerns-that statewide elk populations aren't too high in the first place and that FWP is trying to force landowners to allow hunting access-have emerged. Though the changes would shorten the length of the elk-hunting season, they're aimed at increasing the harvest by boosting the number and variety of tags available.

Mike Thompson, a FWP wildlife biologist in Missoula, says as elk populations have grown over recent decades, an increasing number of special early- and late-season hunts have been heaped on top of the general season, which has resulted in intricate, lengthy regulations for managers and the public alike without substantially increasing the number of elk harvested. There are an estimated 145,000 elk statewide, nearly triple levels of 30 years ago.

"We've done a lot of special things to try to be successful and at some point you have to realize it would be better if we simplify rules so that people can understand them," Thompson says.

Under the new rules, most special seasons would be eliminated, though FWP would retain its ability to schedule extra hunts if high populations (and accompanying problems like crop damage) persist in certain districts.

Thompson says elk population objectives, established last January, are currently exceeded throughout much of the state. For instance, in Region 2-west-central Montana, including the Missoula area, where the target population is 18,300-16 of 22 hunting districts are above objective.

While some-for instance the Montana Wildlife Federation, which represents 23 conservationist, landowner and sportsmen groups around the state-say high populations are a problem that can and should be addressed with the rule changes, others question whether populations really are significantly above target and, more fundamentally, whether the state's population objectives are sound.

The Montana Outfitters and Guides Association recently released its position about the proposal, and while it supports the notion of the general five-week season for controlling numbers, it questions whether populations are significantly high. FWP has said more than 50 percent of its management units are over objective statewide, but MOGA contends that such overages are insignificant in many areas, and that FWP is overstating the problem-and overreacting to it-by revamping rules across the state.

Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, is similarly concerned that elk numbers aren't high enough to warrant a large harvest increase, but he takes issue with the objectives themselves, which he says reflect societal, not biological, realities and capacities. The real issue is not the sheer number of elk, which he says could and should be higher, but their distribution on the landscape.

"I hope this reveals the pink elk sitting on the kitchen table," Hockett says. "It seems to me what they're trying to address is the issue of public wildlife seeking refuge on large, private landholdings that severely limit hunting access. If there's unlimited access to adjacent public lands, it doesn't take elk long to figure out they should run to where they won't be shot. That is the essence of the problem-whether the FWP proposal will address it is up in the air."

Thompson agrees that the objectives are motivated by both social and biological pressures but maintains that increased harvesting is needed.

"It's not that Montana is overfilled with elk, but we have to strike some kind of compromise where we have lots of elk to enjoy but we're able to control them," says Thompson, adding that once over-objective, populations spiral exponentially upward.

He also agrees that hunting access on private land is a significant issue, and says it's no coincidence that many of the areas overpopulated with elk also have large swathes of private land closed to hunters. Under the new rules, landowners would be encouraged to open their land because only those who allow "reasonable access" would be eligible for special damage hunts to address problems like damaged crops or haystacks from elk crowding, at other times of the year.

That aspect is what troubles Steve Pilcher, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Associa-tion. He says simplification of the regulations is a good goal, but that one-size-fits-all management may not succeed in increasing the harvest, particularly if the weather doesn't cooperate during the five-week window. The group hasn't defined a specific stance yet and hopes to learn more about the issue before doing so, he says, but worries that FWP is trying to increase its leverage to force landowners to allow access to hunters.

But Dave Stalling, president of Hellgate Hunters and Anglers and former president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, says increased access would "restore and preserve hunting opportunities for the Average Joe hunter" by making access to a public resource more consistent and equitable. Though the Missoula group was scheduled to meet Jan. 10 before taking an official position, Stalling said the group was encouraged by FWP's move to simplify and consolidate elk-hunting rules.

"Everybody should have fair and equitable access to pursue hunting opportunities, and they need to be managed by the state," Stalling says. "We think this proposal will help support that."

A series of public meetings on Fish, Wildlife & Park's proposed 2006 hunting regulations, which also address mountain lion hunting, Chronic Wasting Disease and youth hunter age limits, are underway statewide. Missoula's Doubletree Hotel will host a meeting Jan. 17 at 7 p.m.; other meeting details can be found at http://fwp.mt.gov.

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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