At last, the Wilks brothers got what they wanted but money couldn’t buy: the guaranteed opportunity to hunt trophy elk on their ranch.
In a hastily arranged Zoom meeting at 7:30 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 24 -- to accommodate the personal international travel of Commissioner Walsh -- and with minimal advanced public notice, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission gifted coveted elk permits to large landowners. The Wilks brothers and their designees will now receive eight permits to hunt trophy bull elk on their ranch in the Snowy Mountains south of Lewistown this upcoming hunting season, and in return the public hunter gets little.
Under "Public Elk Hunting Access Agreements," landowners agree to open some of their private land to limited public hunting; in return, they get compensated. At face value, this doesn’t sound too terrible, however, the devil is in the details.
First, this is Montana -- not Texas, not New Mexico, not Utah and certainly not New Jersey. Landowners should absolutely be compensated for opening public access, but trophy bull elk should not be the bargaining chip; this privatization will only further incentivize landowners to block and limit public access rather than encourage it.
Second, as conceived, the Wilkses get to specify the terms of the contract within the sideboards set by the Legislature, which effectively eliminates the involvement of the public as well as FWP field biologists to ensure these deals are indeed equitable, sustainable and consistent with long-term public interests.
In this case, in exchange for receiving eight elk permits (above and beyond what field biologists recommended for this area), the Wilks Ranch will allow eight current permit holders the opportunity to hunt elk on the ranch along with 16 others who drew a 411 cow permit. According to the contract language, the Wilks Ranch gets to hand-pick these eight either-sex (bull) permit holders according to, among other qualifiers: “... who contribute[s] to the success of the Ranch.”
The 16 cow elk permit holders will be randomly selected by FWP and must agree to be accompanied by the ranch manager at all times, must schedule their harvests at least 30 days in advance, and is limited to five harvest days between Oct. 23 - Feb. 1.
Similar agreements have existed previously, but have never been this egregious. Amendments to a bill that was decried by hunters as it passed on the second to last day of the legislative session this year lowered the number of public hunters needed from four to three and added that the landowner gets to choose one-third of those public hunters rather than all of them being equitably selected by FWP. In this perverted case, the Wilkses choose who hunts the limited-entry bulls while FWP randomly chooses the cow harvesters.
These contracts can be drafted at any time and are not subject to nor part of any other established regulatory procedures. Issuing these landowner elk permits separately and outside the regular season-setting process violates sound principles of wildlife management. The public has no real voice, nor do FWP wildlife biologists. The four recently Gianforte-appointed FWP commissioners are pushing the agenda to privatize and commercialize Montana’s public fish and wildlife resources -- a shift long championed by the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, United Property Owners of Montana and the Property and Environment Research Center.
The circumstance we now find ourselves in is akin to that of the proverbial fox guarding the henhouse. The current administration and its appointed officials -- namely the FWP commissioners and the FWP director -- complete this clever scheme favoring large landowners: the landowner-friendly Legislature hides changes in a last-minute bill that didn’t receive public comment; the landowner sets the terms of the contract; the Gianforte-appointed commission and FWP director approve and sign the contract. It’s a buddy system at its finest and was strikingly obvious to anyone who got up early last Friday to witness the stacked FWP Commission rubber-stamp the Wilks Ranch contract even as the public voiced concern. No one from the public spoke in support of these agreements. Our current custodians of Montana’s public trust in fish and wildlife can no longer be trusted.
So what are we do?
The only real remedy to ensure Montana’s fish and wildlife is managed for and on behalf of the citizens of the state -- which certainly includes landowners -- is to revamp the system to elect rather than appoint the FWP commissioners. This would establish the necessary accountability to the public as opposed to special interests. Until then, however, we will sadly bear witness to the steady privatization and commercialization of our publicly-owned fish and wildlife which, up to this point, made Montana the envy of the world.