Montana’s hunting outfitters report leasing more than 6.5 million acres across the state last year, or close to 10 percent of private lands.
The number is revealed in a newly published map produced by the Montana Department of Labor and Industry’s Business Standards Division. The map is required by state rule.
The last map the Business Standards Division released in 2016 caused an uproar when inaccurate data put the amount of outfitter-leased lands at more than 18.6 million acres. The glitch was blamed on a database that never shed outdated information.
“Part of what we ran into in 2016 is, we knew the data wasn’t good … but there was pressure to kick it out,” said Todd Younkin, administrator for the Business Standards Division.
Now the information will be updated annually, when outfitters renew their licenses with the state between November and December, Younkin said.
“We built all of this data from the ground up,” he said. “Outfitters will be required to verify (their leased acreage) at renewal.”
More than 66.7 million acres of Montana’s 94.1 million acres are private. The state has about 27.3 million acres of public land. Estimates have ranged from 1.2 million to 1.9 million public acres in the state that are inaccessible.
“We have a great deal of time and energy invested in making this thing accurate,” said Rob Arnaud, owner of Montana Hunting Co. in Bozeman and a member of the Board of Outfitters.
That time and energy included educating hunting outfitters about how to enter their information correctly, he said.
Montana has 725 active fishing and hunting outfitters. Of these, 169 have a hunting-only endorsement while 193 have a fishing and hunting endorsement. Another 363 are endorsed only for fishing.
Many of the areas where outfitted acres are concentrated are places that correspond with where Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is over its socially set elk population objectives.
Arnaud said he hadn’t compared the maps to see if they corresponded.
Increasing the elk harvest on private land has been a continuing challenge for FWP because of the difficulty of accessing herds with public hunters — the state’s main means to control wildlife populations. Leased lands are sometimes managed to exclude public hunters for a variety of reasons — from ensuring large bulls for paying clients to keeping sometimes disrespectful public hunters off private lands.
“We need to work with them, of course,” said John Vore, FWP Game Management Bureau chief. “I think everyone realizes that public hunting is the tool we have to manage to objective.”
Nick Gevock, of the Montana Wildlife Federation, concurred.
"We agree that we need to manage elk down to the objective," he said. "We've long advocated doing that by having public hunters on the ground."
Outgoing Fish and Wildlife Commission chairman Dan Vermillion, of Livingston, said that elk overpopulation is not as much lack of access to elk because of outfitting as it once was.
"Addressing elk populations will require constant collaboration between hunters, landowners and the department to increase harvest during the general season and to address populations that continue to grow despite six months of elk hunting each year between shoulder seasons, archery seasons, and the general season," Vermillion wrote in an email. "In my opinion, problematic concentrations of elk during the general season will create a burgeoning elk population regardless of the success of our shoulder seasons."
FWP has requested funding for a person to rewrite and oversee implementation of a new elk management plan. Vermillion said he’d like to see that document ease the population objectives so they are not an absolute number, such as are currently in place.
Previous outfitter-leased acreage maps were produced in 2005, 2007, 2011 and 2013. In 2005 the map showed, within a 7 percent margin of error, that 5.6 million acres were being used by licensed hunting outfitters. In 2011 that had jumped to 7.79 million acres of private lands that “may have been used by licensed outfitters,” but didn’t report property under 40 acres.
The Montana Outfitters and Guides Association has opposed the reporting requirement in the past. But Gov. Steve Bullock has said the data is vital to the management of wildlife, the setting of hunting seasons and “critical for the activities of the Private Land/Public Wildlife Council,” which works on land access issues.
"We still need a lot more information on access," Gevock said. "Maybe outfitting isn't an issue. We don't know."