Are there too many elk in Montana?
Ask a landowner whose alfalfa field is mowed down by a herd of the big mammals and the answer is probably yes. Ask the 85 percent of Montana hunters who don’t fill their elk tag annually and the answer is likely no.
According to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the agency charged with managing elk, the answer is a bit less black and white. Instead of too many elk, FWP has adopted the phrase “over objective.” This refers to places where the tolerance of private landowners for elk is being exceeded.
“Most of those objectives are something below habitat capacity,” said Quentin Kujala, FWP Wildlife Management Section chief. “Clearly, elk can persist at numbers over the objective.”
In other words, there is no mathematical formula for deciding which landscapes are over objective, although some numbers such as elk populations and acres involved may be included in the conversation, Kujala said.
“Maybe a better way to say it is the elk are over their social tolerance level,” he added.
Despite the introduction of wolves, 80 of Montana’s 138 elk management units – 58 percent – are over their social tolerance level, wildlife officials say.
The habitat in these elk management units may be able to support more elk, but the area landowners’ acceptance of the big mammals has been reached.
That is in part because elk populations over the past 10 years have grown, according to FWP estimates. Last year the agency put the total population in the state at more than 158,500 elk. That was up from almost 138,500 in 2004.
For comparison, Idaho elk peaked at about 125,000 in 1997.
Montana’s FWP notes that in 2004 about 37 percent of its elk were living on private land. By 2014 that had grown to 41 percent living on private land. The elk population increase on private land between those two years was 21 percent, or an additional 13,700 elk spread across 15.7 million private acres.
Bozeman conservationist Glenn Hockett looks at figures like these and sees a trend, echoed by many in the hunting community, that the reason for the increase in elk on private land is because of a decrease in public access to those properties to hunt elk.
Although some ranchers and farmers may be “screaming at FWP” to fix the problem, the agency “can’t mandate – nor should they – that hunters can go on private property,” Hockett said.
“Hey, on public land we’re not over objective,” he added. “There aren’t too many elk. It’s a social issue.”
Hockett is worried that FWP has liberalized the harvest of cow elk so much to force numbers down on private land that elk populations are likely to nosedive on adjoining public land, as well.
“It used to be hard to get drawn to shoot a cow elk,” he said. Now in some places hunters can shoot two.
Hockett would rather see a limited number of cow tags on public land, or bull-only tags.
“Cow elk make more bull elk down the road,” he said. “And if you kill a cow, you kill two elk at least, maybe three” referring to the offspring it can produce.
Hockett said he’d also like to see greater transparency by FWP on what the carrying capacity of the habitat is versus the social objectives to give sportsmen an idea of “what they’re giving up.”
“These objectives, they act like they were a cooperative effort, but we were never asked,” he said.
The guidelines for Montana’s elk management are contained in the state’s elk plan, finalized in 2006 and probably in need of updating, Kujala said.
The author of the plan, retired FWP biologist Ken Hamlin, said the elk guidelines were designed to be adaptive and open to revisions.
“The original intent was for there to be evaluations of what the actions did or did not do,” he said. “The original plan was good if there was follow-through.”
FWP biologist Ken Hamlin, who authored the state’s 2006 elk management plan, said any plan based on scientific methodology is going to be hard to enact in the face of social pressure. And with sparse access to private land, “you might as well forget any model as far as hunting goes,” he added.
“With the access in certain places getting worse and worse and being controlled by people who don’t care one way or another, there’s nothing you can do,” Hamlin said. “And that’s not going to change any time soon.”
Hamlin also expressed concern that opening the elk plan to new scrutiny could lead to attacks on some of the protections built into the document.
John Vore, FWP Game Management Bureau chief, said it could be another two years before the agency begins re-writing the state’s elk management plan, and that process would likely take another two years. But he said a “groundswell of support” can prompt Fish and Wildlife commissioners to consider changing those population objectives, since they are set based on hunter, landowner and outfitter input. He also added that it’s “not a simple task to do.”
Vore said population objectives were changed in the Middle and South Forks of the Flathead River where public land made caps on elk populations unnecessary. The Bitterroot Valley was also changed based on a newly drawn hunting district boundary.
Instead of that, Hockett believes FWP should remove the areas where public hunting isn’t allowed from elk population assessments. That very idea is spelled out in the current Elk Management Plan.
“To avoid over-harvest of accessible elk on public lands or private lands open to hunting, the inaccessible elk may not be included in objective numbers,” the plan states on page 52. “Elk occupying these ‘refuges’ may be counted separately where practical (if they are a distinct segment) and sub-objectives established that could be operative if access negotiations are successful.”
So how many of the 80 elk management units in the state are over objective because FWP has counted elk harbored on private land where hunter access is limited? There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer to that question.
“While at local scales there may be abundant operational clarity on why various hunting districts are over objective (no doubt some at least are due to the harbored situation you describe below), at the program/state scale FWP has not effectively established or summarized that clarity,” Kujala said in an email response to the question.
Kujala added, “In some areas it can also be difficult to know for certain what elk a biologist counts in the winter is also an elk harbored in the fall.”
The new elk shoulder seasons may provide more information that will help FWP narrow down and highlight those districts “that ‘aren’t working’ in the context of effective elk management,” Kujala said. and lead to a review by the department and commission to inform future decisions.
“We’re going to try to pull as much out of this pilot project (elk shoulder season) as possible,” he said. “We want to maximize the lesson there as much as possible.”
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