Elk have become a political animal in Montana.
For decades, predators like grizzly bears and wolves were the ones to incite political passion. Yet slowly, as elk populations have grown and herds have re-established a presence where they weren’t seen for a century, elk have entered Montana’s political crosshairs.
It’s a turn of events unimaginable 100 years ago, when sportsmen’s groups worked with the state’s wildlife agency to capture and transfer Yellowstone elk to rebuild populations.
“When my grandfather homesteaded the ranch of my boyhood west of Three Forks, Montana, just after 1900, elk had been eliminated from this foothills area between two mountain ranges,” wrote Jack Ballard in his book “Large Mammals of the Rocky Mountains.” “With them firmly reestablished in historic habitat, it’s now hard to imagine my boyhood neighborhood without elk.”
Yet the recovery of elk populations in Montana, last estimated to number more than 136,000 – down from a peak of 176,000 in 2017, has now led many of the state’s hunters and landowners to a crossroads, a divisive debate over how best to manage this wildlife wealth.
The most recent example of the divide came to light during a Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting last month. During the short session, the commission approved landowner public hunting access agreements for three ranches, including the N Bar Ranch, owned by Texas billionaire brothers Dan and Farris Wilks.
The agreement for the Wilkses drew the most attention because it gave eight free either-sex (bull) elk tags to the family and allows them to pick eight other hunters who already drew an either-sex tag to hunt on their property. In return for this privilege, the ranch will allow 16 hunters drawn from a list of applicants to hunt cow elk for no more than five days.
Prior to changes made in the last Legislature, the statute that allowed the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks to award similar free hunting tags was not popular. Only two landowners had taken part. The legislative changes have increased interest in the program which can allow nonresident landowners, who meet the requirements of the statute, to receive free elk tags rather than compete with other nonresidents in the state’s license drawing. So far, 11 ranches have taken advantage of the revised statute.
Current Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Pat Tabor hailed these access agreements, in the Sept. 24 commission meeting, as being about “increasing public opportunity and getting into areas that historically have just been untouchable,” since the agreements require the landowner to allow some public access.
Yet that statement seems to contradict the fact that the Wilkses allowed far more access in 2019 when more than 300 cow elk were shot by hunters on the expansive ranch that stretches across portions of three counties – Musselshell, Fergus and Golden Valley.
“… People are screaming about population numbers, saying we’ve got to hunt elk all the way to March 1 to get the numbers down, but the largest elk herd in Montana, those landowners say 16 antlerless permits is enough?” said Shane Colton, a former Fish and Wildlife Commission member.
Colton pointed to the 2019 agreement with the Wilkses as a stark contrast. In 2020, when Farris Wilks didn’t draw a nonresident tag, FWP worked to develop an agreement to give Wilks and his wife, JoAnn, each a bull tag under the landowner access program, Colton said. In return, the Wilkses would allow eight other either-sex elk permit holders access as well as 100 to 200 cow elk hunters.
“We thought we had an agreement and it fizzled … which was frustrating because we put a lot of time into it,” Colton said. “I never received a clear explanation as to why.”
Any perception that the prior commission and FWP didn’t work with landowners was false, Colton added. “What we didn’t do is just wholesale give them this public resource without some sort of fair exchange back to the public.”
The Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks has been mandated by law to manage elk populations down to objectives. These are largely based on landowner tolerance, in an attempt by past legislators to put pressure on FWP to increase the elk harvest.
The department has struggled to find a way to allow hunters to kill more elk because the elk are smart enough to move, when pressured, from where they are being pursued to adjacent private lands where no hunting is allowed. Striving to find a solution, early and late cow elk hunts were authorized, called shoulder seasons. The seasons have reduced elk where access is available, FWP has noted, but landowners grow understandably tired of dealing with hunters for half a year.
John Sullivan III, chairman of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said there are already tools to help landowners, such as the Block Management Program that pays them to allow hunter access.
"As the landscape in Montana changes and more and more family farms and ranches are being bought up by super wealthy nonresidents, allowing these interests to further capitalize on a public resource is a recipe for disaster and a surefire way to privatize Montana’s elk herds," Sullivan said.
The new Fish and Wildlife Commission has swung too far in the opposite direction in the case of the Wilks agreement, Colton said, giving away a public resource (wildlife) to an individual without a fair exchange to the general public.
Former commissioner Dan Vermillion agreed, saying the commission in the past was focused on the fact that they served landowners as well as hunters, trying to strike a balance between helping ranchers and farmers where elk were a problem while “still keeping Montana hunters at the forefront of their decision making.”
Farming, ranching and outfitting groups have argued that landowners deserve more flexibility in dealing with elk that eat their crops and damage fences and haystacks. GOP legislators have attempted to be responsive, most recently with a bill this year that would have given landowner tags to sponsor nonresident hunters. The bill died following changes.
Bozeman-based Property and Environment Research Center, a promoter of free market environmentalism, recently published a report advocating transferable landowner tags to incentivize property owners to provide wildlife habitat. In the report, the center outlines programs in other western states, including Colorado.
Dave Chadwick, former executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation and a one-time Colorado Division of Wildlife employee, said the PERC report made claims that “glossed over considerable implementation problems” that would accompany PERC’s proposals.
“I think the experience across the West of states that tried these programs … the implementation is always more complicated than the theory,” he said.
No one working in a state wildlife agency is going to go on record disparaging a landowner program out of fear of retribution, he added, but he’s never seen evidence the programs have worked and implementation takes a lot of time and money.
What does work, he said, is “public access for public hunters … if our goal is getting to (elk population) objectives.”
Recent editorials have been published emphasizing the divisions caused by the issue. In an Oct. 1 letter in the Missoulian – signed by 13 retired FWP wildlife biologists, with more than 370 years of experience, and three former commissioners – the authors specifically questions privatization of wildlife “for a privileged few on private lands by selling access or outfitted elk hunts, particularly hunts for trophy bulls.”
In an Oct. 3 letter to the editor published in the Billings Gazette, Chuck Denowh of the United Property Owners of Montana, argued the burden of feeding elk has become too “egregious” for landowners and that for nonresident landowners like the Wilkses to not be able to hunt their own land because they didn’t draw a tag is a “big part of the access problem we have today. It’s unreasonable to expect any landowner to willingly open their property to hunters when they’re not even allowed to hunt themselves.”
Denowh goes on to advocate for transferable landowner tags.
A Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners report found some landowners were selling permits in that state for as much as $20,000 or more, according to PERC.
“This price premium drives landowners to improve habitat and see wildlife as an asset instead of a liability,” the PERC report said.
The high value of trophy elk was emphasized at a recent FWP auction when a set of confiscated antlers sold for $12,000.
Vermillion advocates a different route to a solution – councils and committees, like those used by FWP in the past to bring landowners and hunters to the table to compromise on a solution, not legislative mandates that serve a particular party’s interest.
Sullivan said his hunting group supports private and public property rights, noting that the state has a "long and proud tradition that our wildlife are publicly owned by all Montanans.
"A benefit of that tradition is the ability for anyone, no matter the size of their bank account, to buy an elk tag and have a reasonable chance for success," he said.
Working against hunters is the fact that, although the sport remains relatively popular in Montana, only about 50% of residents hunt, according to one recent poll. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey in 2007 put the hunting participation rate in Montana for ages 16 and older at only 19%. So the hunting community is reliant on nonhunters for support.
Are Montana hunters on the verge of seeing the monetizing and/or privatizing of wildlife in the state by the current administration? When asked where he stands on the issue of transferable landowner tags, Gov. Greg Gianforte said he "remains committed to protecting Montana’s long-standing hunting heritage and to using a sound approach with public comment when considering any wildlife management policy."
Colton sees current actions by the commission and FWP as “a disturbing trend.
“I truly hope it’s a one off,” he said.
“If it’s not, there’s going to be a continuation of this that is going to create a landowner tag system that is similar to the models used in Texas, Colorado and Utah.”
Montana’s wealth of elk has led to a situation the state’s early conservationists couldn’t have imagined as they sought to restore elk populations from near extermination. One hundred years from now, what will Montanans think of the actions taken today in response to a wildlife resource abundance?