Guest Column 

Public Shut Out Of Wildlife Decisions By Legislature And FWP


March 17, 2021

Montana hunters are being shut out of major decisions on future access to elk. The new approach in Helena, led by Speaker Wylie Galt and Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Hank Worsech, is to spring legislation on us.

Making major wildlife management changes without public input benefits few and hurts Montana hunters. I never thought it would happen here, but we must meet this full-on effort to limit public hunter involvement in wildlife management decisions if we are to maintain the title of the "Last Best Place."

For decades, wildlife management in Montana has been guided by the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. We've had an open, collaborative system of developing wildlife policy and regulations. The basic tenet that wildlife is a public resource, held in the public trust, along with a public involvement process that included advisory councils, season setting meetings, and meetings between Legislative sessions has served us well.

It is being replaced by a system in which self-serving individual and partisan desires are developing and introducing misguided legislation to problems that are not clearly defined, or agreed upon. These actions ignore the will of the voters and the pleas of wildlife management experts, hunter and angler conservationists, and all Montanans who cherish our fish and wildlife resources.

During the first half of our current legislative session, there has been a disturbing trend of bad bills being pushed through on largely partisan lines with little to no public involvement. One such example is HB 505. The current administration at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks worked with Rep. Galt to produce a bill that creates landowner-sponsored nonresident elk licenses, calling it an incentive program.

This bill would fundamentally change elk management in Montana, yet there was no hunter involvement in crafting it. Dozens of Montana hunters testified against it during the initial hearing, and our members and affiliates are mobilizing to educate lawmakers on the flaws in the bill.

This solution was produced without clear agreement as to what the problem is, and sidestepped any normal public involvement in the process. Furthermore, FWP is currently developing a new statewide elk management plan based on recommendations of a collaborative citizens group. So, what's the rush?

The state through FWP and the Fish and Wildlife Commission have numerous tools to manage elk herds that exceed private landowners' level of tolerance. Remember, elk and all wildlife are a public resource held in the public trust regardless of the land where they live.

Montanans care deeply about their wildlife resources and sporting heritage. Until now, Montana has been a leader in the management of those resources. Our wildlife, like our democracy, are very fragile and require our active participation. Call the Legislature at 444-4800 and ask members of the House FWP committee to oppose HB 505.

Through adherence to the basic tenets of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, active public participation in decision making, and citizen-driven initiatives, we have a wildlife resource that is the envy of the world. We have the tools; politicians need to simply listen to Montanans and trust in our ability to come together and find management solutions that work for all interests.

Tom Puchlerz is a retired wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. He serves as volunteer board president of the Montana Wildlife Federation.


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