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Public comment open for recommendations from elk advisory committee

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Bull elk

A bull elk browses on a lodgepole pine seedling. 

Recommendations from a citizen advisory board on potential changes to elk management and hunting have been analyzed by state wildlife managers and released for public comment.

The 12-member Elk Management Citizen Advisory Group was formed by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Director Hank Worsech earlier this year following a contentious season-setting process and debate over how to manage some burgeoning elk populations and difficulties with public access. The group met 10 times from March to July, advancing 14 recommendations to FWP.

As an advisory group, the body does not have the power to enact policy — that lies with FWP, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Legislature. But Worsech has said the recommendations will be considered in concert with other advisory committees and an update to the state’s elk management plan as the state looks at potential regulation changes for elk.

The recommendations range from those widely supported such as encouraging collaboration between the state and federal agencies, establishing local working groups and improving hunter education, to more controversial proposals such as requiring elk hunters to choose between archery and rifle hunting and increasing elk populations in areas where they may be below objectives.

Other proposals include a new access program providing more landowner input on requirements and compensation, allowing up to three cow elk on a single tag in over-objective areas, stricter penalties, better data collection, a new landowner liaison position, emphasis on disease control and reforms to shoulder and game damage hunts.

In addition to taking public comment at www.fwp.mt.gov until Oct. 15, FWP released its analysis of the recommendations.

Fiscal analysis is based on the information available and certain assumptions, but the department states 17.5 new employees would be needed and costs could top $10 million annually should all the recommendations be implemented.

On specific recommendations, FWP raises some concerns about implementation. For example, the agency questions whether the law would currently allow for up to three elk on one license and that proposed changes to damage hunts, which broaden public access, to requirements to include friends and family could run afoul of current law.

On the recommendation to choose between archery and firearm seasons, FWP notes that the proposal likely be unpopular and that reducing hunters numbers could reduce the number of elk killed, leading to management concerns.

“Even when hunter numbers are reduced, there may still be enough hunting pressure on public lands to create unfavorable elk distributions,” the analysis states, citing elk movements during archery season. The agency goes on to say that additional data collection as well as surveying of hunters is necessary to fully analyze the proposal.

In response to the recommendation for increasing elk numbers in some areas, FWP again states that more data is needed. In areas such as northwest Montana’s thick forests, counting elk by air is difficult and FWP is looking at potential new counting methods. The agency also notes that reduced timber harvest has resulted in a decrease in quality elk habitat.

FWP also says it is analyzing the impacts of liberalized hunting for wolves, black bears and mountain lions, as well as launching a new multi-year study looking at predator/prey dynamics in a portion of northwest Montana.

Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

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State Reporter

Tom Kuglin is the deputy editor for the Lee Newspapers State Bureau. His coverage focuses on outdoors, recreation and natural resources.

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