Recalling late-season cow hunts on private lands, I was excited at Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks’ proposal to institute “shoulder season” hunts, meaning hunting could occur before or after the regular rifle season under special regulations. The supposed purpose of the hunts is to reduce elk populations in management areas “over population objectives.”
With 80 management areas exceeding “population objectives,” the shoulder season hunts could achieve this objective and increase hunting opportunities, but they won’t. Shoulder seasons will only be allowed in six of the 80 over-objective management areas. The reason for the tiny number given by FWP Director, Jeff Hagener, is that “FWP won't propose a shoulder season where elk stay on private lands not open to public hunting during the general season” (emphasis added).
Pure and simple, if private landowners are experiencing damage from too many elk, but do not allow unrestricted, free public hunting during the regular season, FWP won’t partner with them. This is unfortunate because there are many landowners willing to allow hundreds, if not thousands, of Montana hunters onto their property for shoulder season hunts.
Many landowners are not happy with the proposed shoulder seasons because they see them for what they really are – a blatant attempt to force landowners to open their private land to free, public hunting during the general season. In the words of Director Hagener, the shoulder season objective is “to work with landowners willing to provide free public access to hunt elk on private lands.” The fundamental objectives in FWP guidelines emphasize “enhance free public access to bulls and cows on private land during the general seasons” and “reduce exclusive access to elk” (emphasis added).
I recall when FWP tried to use this heavy-handed approach in 2003. The FWP Commission proposed requiring private ranches already allowing cow elk hunting through A-7 permits and youth and handicapped access to also provide free public bull hunts. They wanted Ted Turner’s Flying D ranch to allow two bull hunts. Biologist Kurt Alt reported to the commission that “they weren’t going to [allow access] for an additional two [bull hunts]” and was concerned about “where FWP would send more handicapped or youth if the ranch [Flying D] doesn’t grant access.”
Ultimately the A-7 permit system disappeared, and Montana hunters were the losers.
Economists are fond of saying “there is no such thing as a free lunch,” and this holds for elk management and elk hunting. Elk habitat is not free, especially on private land. Elk compete with livestock for forage, eat and destroy haystacks, and break down fences. Landowners, not FWP nor hunters, pay for this.
By continuing to beat the “free open to public hunting” drum, FWP and hunters fail to understand that wildlife conservation is no different from any other value chain. When demanders pay, suppliers have an incentive to produce what demanders want. Our goal as hunters should be to reward landowners who add to the value chain, not to punish them. Imagine what would happen if we followed a policy of demanding free meals at good restaurants. How many would keep their doors open?
Here are two better ideas for renewing hunting partnerships with landowners. First, institute shoulder season cow hunts by landowner permission on all private land in management areas over population objectives. A fiscal note for SB 45 (2015) proposing to reinstitute late-season cow hunts estimated that 9,500 hunters would participate. This would add a significant number of hunter days and truly move toward reducing elk numbers. Second, charge shoulder season hunters $20 for the privilege of participating in shoulder season hunts, and earmark the fee as a payment to the landowner for every hunter he or she allows to hunt on private property.
On Oct. 26, John Gibson argued in the Billings Gazette, that the state “must stop the sale of public elk.” What he fails to recognize is that without private landowners who provide habitat, we would not have so many elk. The reason, as Gibson notes, that “the second largest elk herd in Montana is under one ownership” is that the owner is limiting access to excellent habitat.
As hunters, we should seek ways to reward private land owners who conserve precious wildlife habitat. The proposed shoulder season elk hunts do just the opposite, and hunters such as Gibson who demand free hunting on private land undermine wildlife conservation. As it is, the shoulder season proposal will fail to enhance management or to enhance hunter-landowner partnerships, but it will increase orange spray paint sales.