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There’s an old saying in Montana that elk make people do stupid things. There’s a lot of truth to that saying. Whether you’re a dedicated elk hunter, a landowner with 400 head of elk on a haystack or a wildlife manager seeking to balance the needs of both interests, elk have a way of making simple issues complex, and bringing out some of our worst traits.

As elk populations expand in central and eastern Montana, and as elk use private land across the state more and more as refuge from two- and four-legged predators, new conflicts and challenges arise. These challenges create conflict both on the ground, and in the political realm. This legislative session, we’ve seen that frustration translate into the introduction of HB 497 and HJ 18.

HB 497 and HJ 18 represent the frustration that many landowners feel regarding elk concentrations on private land, and the desire to reduce populations through the increased use of shoulder seasons. Both of those bills are working their way through the process, and we’d like to take a moment to commend both Rep. Wylie Galt (R-Martinsdale) and Rep. Zach Brown (D-Bozeman) for trying to find some middle ground on these bills by way of amendments that help bring people together, rather than push us apart.

While we still have significant concerns about the requests in HJ18, we are hopeful to work with the sponsor and the agriculture groups to come up with language in the Senate that will help us find that common ground that neighbors should always seek. But the underlying frustration will not go away after this session ends, and if we’re not thoughtful in how we address this issue in the interim, legislation next session could be worse than a resolution in terms of elk management and the public trust.

That’s why we’re asking for a new elk management plan (EMP). The current EMP is 15 years old, and outdated. We’re now hunting elk six months out of the year, creating even more issues with problematic concentrations, distribution and creating elk that now believe that alfalfa fields are the safest place to calve and raise their young. We’re seeing noxious weeds take over critical elk summer and transitional range and we’re seeing elk simply not want to live on public land anymore, especially when they get hunted hard by humans, bears, lions and wolves.

We’re at a crossroads in elk management in Montana. We can continue to down the path that calls for the annihilation of the great elk herds of Montana, or we can put the coffee on and sit down as neighbors to find a better path forward for landowners, hunters and wildlife managers. Montana must find a better way to manage elk for all of us, not just one interest, be they hunter or landowner. The Montana Wildlife Federation is committed to finding that better path forward, and we hope that others are as well. Other states have figured out how to balance opportunity and management. We’re confident that Montanans can as well.

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Bill Geer is president of the Montana Wildlife Federation. 

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