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Managing Montana’s Elk – A Growing Problem

Over the past twenty years, Montana’s elk population has seen quite the shift from large declines in the western part of the state to large population increases in the central and eastern part of the state. Here lies the problem. The western part of the state is largely public land. The central and eastern parts of the state are mostly private land. This makes managing elk populations very difficult. Montana has yet to find a solution that works where everyone is happy. The revised elk management plan in 2017 greatly lowered elk population objectives for the state largely because of the shift of population centers of elk and landowner tolerance of them. Management objectives are down in the 90,000s state wide, a huge decrease from past objectives for the state of Montana. Herd counts for the state are estimated to be 136,000 which is down from highs of 176,000 in 2017.  

The political climate in Montana has shifted this past election cycle and there has been more and more talk and push for landowner tags and more landowner privilege for managing elk on private property. This is where some very debatable topics have come up, like protecting the public land hunter and preventing hunting in Montana from becoming a “rich man’s sport” while also keeping landowners happy with having elk on their property. A large portion of landowners won’t allow public access to shoot elk for free. There has been some horse trading going on in this state which is sending management down the direction of landowner tags like Colorado and Utah. A high-profile ranch owned by the Wilkes Brothers has been the spotlight of some of the first landowner tag allocations. The new statute will allow landowners to get free elk tags but will require them to also allow some public hunters to access their property and shoot elk. Talks on the specifics fizzled in prior months so we are yet to know exact details of what will happen. The Wilkes have let up to 300 cow hunters in the past access and harvest cow elk but there is no access for hunting bulls. 

Time will tell what develops but the debate will continue. Is Montana headed down the path of Utah and Colorado with re-salable landowner tags or should the Block Management Program be revamped or other deals be made with landowners? Should landowners be given a bigger incentive from the state to let public hunters on to harvest elk that they are complaining about? 




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  1. Might be best to leverage the most successful aspects of the options available versus insisting on a singular solution. Try several/ multiple at same time and then assess the success or failure based on desired critical factors and satisfaction? Doing nothing is an option but does it move the needle towards the goal. If the goal is “purely” to get to a Management number they could just do mass shooting of large late winter herds. A lousy solution but it’s been done before.

    I feel Any decision that allows more access and hunt permits/tags to private lands is a win, but caveat that it may not be a perfect success such as Cow only hunts where the landowner gets control of all bull elk tags. Then again the other option is no hunting on that private land at all, since the landowner holds the cards for any access.

    If u owned hundreds or thousands of acres of prime elk habitat would u allow people to come on hunt it ? Lots of fear out there if someone gets hurt or killed on ur property, trust me I can’t tell u how many private landowners have wanted to allow me access or to lease ground but they worry about law suites. Would u let someone u don’t know walk around in your backyard with a gun ?

    Ideally Montana gets landowners to allow more access and hunters get a reasonable number of both Bull and Cow tags when access is granted. Realize the landowner in most cases will want some incentive, wouldn’t you ? Anything outside of that will drive continued drama and nothing getting done.

  2. Michael K Dailey

    Land owners should not get a penny of public money if they don’t allow CONTROLLED public access of HUNTERS during the SEASON. There should be NO trespass or other fees to allow access. If the landowners complain about wildlife damages then be part of the solution to mitigate it. Otherwise, stop complaining & take the damage. No landowner tags to be sold to outfitters for mega-dollars. Hunting does keep slipping into a rich mans sport & must stop!

  3. We have to make the pie bigger. Do whatever it takes to reverse the declining numbers in the western part of the state AND incentivize private landowners to tolerate larger elk herds in the central and eastern portions. If this includes some type of reasonable landowner tag system (that hopefully also increases public access to some degree), so be it. That could help relieve some of the overcrowding elsewhere. Point is, we need more elk in more places to accommodate more hunters.

  4. I think a revamp of the block management program is a possible solution with an associated fee attached to increase funding to help complete with outfitter leases.

  5. The N-bar (Wilkes) ranch got BULL tags for allowing a handful of hunters (who, rumor is, they got to choose..hmmm wonder if the new FWP commissioner or governor will be visiting the N-bar this fall?) to hunt their property…highly inappropriate in my opinion. Cow tags are one thing but multiple bull tags..seriously?! Now, do you think any landowners are going to allow hunters without also wanting BULL tags? I sure wouldn’t. This will be a slippery slope that FWP is going down. I agree with Orion about the liability aspect but for the amount of money MT receives from tags they could have some sort of liability policy for the landowners. It would be a much better use of funds than the joke of block management. A large majority of the block management areas are junk where there isn’t any game. Seriously, how many of you have actually been successful on B.M. land? Percentage of success vs. acres in block management is very low I’m betting. The landowners are laughing their way to the bank getting paid for allowing access to junk (hunting) land and FWP strokes themselves touting how many acres they have opened up for public hunting. In my opinion the fix is three-fold: first, get serious about predator control (that is what is causing the decline of game in the western part of the state…a whole other topic of the state’s ridiculous management plan), second if landowners have overpopulation of game complaints the state should offer ZERO support if they don’t allow hunters in and, third, change the trespass law to legalize corner access to public lands which would increase hunting pressure around these large private ranches. Look at how much public property has no legal access in some of the same areas in central MT where these same ranches don’t allow public hunters then turn around and complain and or get paid B.M. money for some junk land they open up. FWIW…I can speak intimately about many of the dirty secrets of MT FWP but it’s not in a ‘sour grapes’ sort of way. This year was my eighteenth Montana public land DIY bull elk in a row…I love this state and hunt all over in it. I put hundreds of miles of boots on the ground throughout the state and have personally seen and experienced the severe decline in the west…it is sad and 100% attributable to the state’s terrible management practices. All of you non-resident hunters wanting spend your hard earned money to hunt in MT I’m sorry but think twice about it…I fear it is going to get worse before it gets better.

    • 400- U provide Solid solid ideas and information based on facts and boots on the ground ! I really honed in on the bs fact of these enclaves where public is surrounded by private – that is 1000% fixable in 10 minutes with a simple paragraph and pen stroke.

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