Guest Column

State Lawmakers Can Help Solve Elk Management

To be successful we must do the unthinkable and remove politics from the policy of wildlife management. Landowners, hunters and outfitters in every corner of the state are depending on it.

By George Bettas

“Protecting our way of life means protecting the things that make Montana, Montana.” Wise words, but not mine. They were recently articulated by Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte. I’d like to thank Greg for saying them. The fast approaching 68th session of the Montana Legislature is likely our next, and best opportunity to fulfill this charge. 

But where do we focus first? One of our greatest assets that defines the Montana way of life is our access to wildlife. It’s also traditionally one of the greatest food fights at the Capitol. This year however, things could look different because there is support from all corners for pragmatic solutions.

Right now, elk management is failing everybody, and there is bipartisan interest in fixing it. That’s true whether you’re a private outfitter trying to make ends meet, a landowner in Central Montana dealing with relentless crop damage, or a do-it-yourself hunter finding little success on public lands and limited access on private lands. Montanans from all backgrounds and parties have recognized we need new tools that can help redistribute elk, improve hunter success rates, and maintain positive relationships between hunters, landowners, and outfitters.

Many of us have been busy the last few months meeting over kitchen tables and dreaming up some new approaches. One of the most fruitful discussions focused on elk management solutions occurred earlier this summer, at the 2022 Elk Symposium hosted by the Montana Citizen’s Elk Management Coalition. 

At this day-long symposium, elk management experts and sitting Montana state legislators exchanged ideas with landowners, outfitters and hunters. We arrived at a multitude of ideas, ranging from the overly ambitious to the effortless. Within that range of possibilities, the Montana Citizens Elk Management Coalition has identified three priorities that state lawmakers should examine to improve the status-quo: 

Update landowner incentive programs.

Lawmakers have a golden opportunity to reexamine incentives that encourage landowner participation in hunting access programs to improve access to private lands. The Private Lands and Public Wildlife Advisory Committee already has suggested some promising recommendations that would increase the maximum payment cap in the Block Management Program as well as reform the 454 Elk Hunting Access Agreements. 

Explore better funding models to restore habitat.

Montana is suffering from reduced habitat quality on public lands, particularly in the northwest part of the state, which has suffered elk population declines, increased predation on elk, and a lack of habitat diversity. Meanwhile, many private lands in eastern and central Montana are withering under prolonged drought which has stressed land productivity. Lawmakers should borrow a successful habitat restoration program in Wyoming that can help improve the situation in Montana too. 

Explore programs that match ethical, competent hunters with private landowners.

In many areas of Montana with large populations of elk, landowners who desire to have elk harvested on their properties view recreation as secondary to harvesting elk on their property. These landowners are often willing to provide access to ethical, proficient hunters who have the skills required to affect a harvest. Currently, there’s only one source or program to recruit such hunters, Montana’s Master Hunter Program. Additional advanced hunter education programs that increase hunter competence, ethical hunting behavior and knowledge of agriculture and land stewardship need to be developed and implemented. 

These are just three ideas that will help answer Gianforte’s call to protect the Montana way of life. But for this work to be successful, our lawmakers must not fall into the mistakes of the past. 

To be successful we must do the unthinkable and remove politics from the policy of wildlife management. Landowners, hunters and outfitters in every corner of the state are depending on it. 

George Bettas is a founder and past president of the Mule Deer Foundation, served as chair of the board for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and recently retired as executive director of the Boone and Crockett Club. He currently serves on the leadership council of the Montana Citizen’s Elk Management Coalition.