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Out of Bounds

Wildlife Management is Never Black and White

Elk management has been a troublesome issue since we first started managing elk — initially by eliminating them during the early settlement of the West

By Rob Breeding

Politics in our country increasingly entails a discussion between two groups, one which sees black as the only answer, the other convinced white is absolute truth.

I’ve long viewed the ability of Montanans to recognize nuance, complication, and the value of compromise when it comes to wildlife management as a refreshing departure from our national descent down a Balkanized rabbit hole. But recently, that assumption has felt more like the sort of self-delusion we sometimes gin up when love morphs into irrational obsession.

The latest in the festering boil that is the elk-management debate in Montana oozed forth in the form of a lawsuit filed by United Property Owners of Montana, an activist group seemingly united behind the idea that public property owners don’t have any rights at all. 

Elk management has been a troublesome issue since we first started managing elk — initially by eliminating them during the early settlement of the West. Then, in the early 20th century, we went about transplanting elk from remnant herds to much of their native range. 

For most of the last century growing those wild elk herds was considered a universal good. Sure, elk would cause problems for landowners, damaging fences and eating forage intended for livestock, but those were manageable situations. Mostly, elk were considered an asset, something that added value to the landscape, public or private. In those halcyon days, landowners would readily provide hunter access and those hunters culled the herd and reduced the likelihood elk would identify private property as refuge during hunting season.

Well, that compact between landowners and hunters has pretty much broken down, replaced by the warring tribes of “property rights are sacred” and “privatization of wildlife is evil.” And what inflexible policy solutions have the tribes boxed themselves into? Giving landowners bull tags to hand out to their pals vs. making hunting units “antlerless only” wherever big chunks of the habitat are owned by uncooperative out-of-staters.

In my favorite movie “The Godfather,” Vito Corleone brings together the heads of the Five Families to end a war between competing crime organizations. Corleone asks the assembled mafiosos “How did things ever get so far?” while lamenting the murder of his oldest son, as well as the son of a rival don.

I wonder how things ever got this far when it comes to wildlife management. 

Elk management in Montana is not the only divisive, contemporary outdoor issue we face. In California, some are distraught that the state has outlawed all but non-toxic ammunition for hunting. And I just learned of another simmering fuss, questioning whether turkey hunters should be allowed to use “fanning and reaping” techniques in areas where bird numbers are declining.

By the way, I was mid-May 2022 years old when I learned what “fanning and reaping” means, at least so far as turkey hunting goes. It involves hiding behind a fan of turkey tail feathers, or a full turkey decoy, to sneak within range of a displaying tom.

Or try bridging the gulf that separates factions in the predator management debate. As a rare fence-straddler I’ve tried, futilely, though I have studied proposals where limited, targeted predator control might work.

If you’re managing wildlife by indiscriminately killing predators on a landscape level, however, the problem with your landscape is habitat, not predators.

Sadly, the elk debate comes just as the wildlife branch of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks is being decapitated. When the state most needs thoughtful, judicious management of its magnificent public wildlife, political leaders are doubling-down on polarization.

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