The sweet deal some Master Hunters have for tagging elk outside of Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge would go sour under changes proposed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
In recent years a special late elk season has been open to anyone who goes the extra mile to become a Master Hunter – completing the Master Hunter course, passing a criminal background check, passing the exam and shooting proficiency test and donating 20 hours of wildlife conservation service.
The Dec. 9-31 any-elk, modern firearm season for Master Hunters in units 127, 130, 133, 136, 139 and 142 has been wildly productive – but only for those who have access to private land adjacent to the refuge.
The hunt has succeeded in helping trim the Turnbull herd – currently numbering more than 400 – toward sustainable levels and reducing landowner complaints about damage their crops suffer when elk come off the refuge.
But two things about this season have troubled state wildlife officials charged with managing big game as a public resource:
Bulls have comprised more than 40 percent of the harvest.
A small number of hunters are doing most of the elk harvest year after year.
The late Master Hunter season was conceived to help reduce the impact the burgeoning elk herd was having on and off Turnbull Refuge.
But it’s evolved into a quality hunt for a few landowners, their families, friends and a few hunters who have secured leases that preclude other hunters.
Another development: Approval of special permit elk hunting inside Turnbull’s boundaries starting in 2010 has reduced the need to provide special privileges to hunters outside the refuge to get the desired harvest.
Master Hunters have killed an average of 55 elk (24 of them bulls) during each of the last five December seasons.
General season hunters, including those hunting inside Turnbull for the first time, killed 166 elk last year, mostly antlerless.
WDFW officials are trying to rework the Master Hunter seasons so they target a higher percentage of antlerless elk, offer more sportsmen a chance to hunt and target hot spots where elk are damaging crops.
They propose replacing the December Master Hunter general elk and deer season with an August-March permit-only season coordinated by area Fish and Wildlife Police officers.
Master Hunter permitees would be on-call to hunt elk when and where landowners need their assistance.
In addition, the agency is working with a group of landowners to form the area’s first Landowner Hunting Permit Program. Originating in the 1990s as the Private Lands Wildlife Management Areas, this program offers farmers permits they can use to generate money in return for allowing the state to offer the same number of permits to the public.
“We had nothing to do with this proposal, in fact I opposed it when I first heard about it,” said John Bruce, a Cheney-area landowner and organizer of the Columbia Plateau Wildlife Conservation Association.
“But now we’re working with the agency to do what’s best for managing the elk and offering hunters opportunity.”
Bruce said the CPWC grew out of his 10-year effort to help Cheney-area landowners deal with legitimate hunters, as well as trespassers, while coordinating with Fish and Wildlife officers to reduce elk damage to crops.
So far, five or six farms totaling nearly 6,000 acres allow the CPWC and its 18-member board to manage hunting on their lands.
Hunters they allow on these properties pay no access fees, but are asked to contribute labor to wildlife conservation projects.
WDFW is proposing this group manage hunting through winter with a designated number of elk permits to manage crop damage on these lands, mostly in Unit 130.
Half of the 30 or so permits would be offered through the state license drawing system, the other half could be raffled by the CPWC to help cover expenses.
“That would give more than 15 hunters a year a chance to hunt land that wouldn’t be open to them otherwise,” said Howard Ferguson, WDFW district wildlife biologist.
Details aren’t formalized. Spokane wildlife managers want to let Master Hunters apply for a second tag to use for the on-call depredation hunts so they can use their first tag to hunt elk as they please in other seasons.
WDFW officials in Olympia have not weighed in on the proposals.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission won’t formally consider the proposals until March.
But local wildlife officials appear to have the ball rolling.
“Under this system, hunters who get permits would be guaranteed a place to hunt,” said Kevin Robinette, WDFW regional wildlife manager.
The late Master Hunter season has not offered that guarantee.
“Basically, we’re refocusing the program to have Master Hunters help the agency with damage problems rather than providing them with special hunts,” he said.
“We know this is creating angst with Master Hunters who have spent quite a bit of time and perhaps money developing relationships with these landowners. There’s no guarantee they will get drawn and get to hunt the late season, even if they own the land.”
However, more hunters would get a shot at elk that roam in the Turnbull area, and the clientele would change every year rather than letting a few hunters have a lock on the resource.