For about a decade, FWP has singled out a handful of hunting districts in Eastern Montana with a limited-draw permit for either-sex elk hunting. With intentionally-limited hunting opportunity, elk populations in those districts have grown out of control, and are now between 4 and 10 times higher than FWP’s population objective levels.
In November 2021, UPOM petitioned the Fish & Game Commission to liberalize hunting opportunity in these districts by getting rid of the draw for archery hunting, and liberalizing rifle permits. That petition was denied in January 2022, and instead the Commission chose to keep limited hunting opportunity, and in some cases actually reduced the number of permits allocated.
The explosion in elk populations has been an incredible burden on landowners who provide habitat. Each year we see increasing damage to crops, forage, and infrastructure. FWP is in violation of state law by allowing populations to grow out of control—they have a statutory mandate to manage in a manner to reach objective levels. If they won’t follow the law willingly, the only alternative is to compel them to do so via court action, so in April 2022, UPOM filed suit in district court to do just that.
Elk populations are chronically over objective in most hunting districts around the state. The 2020 Elk Counts put statewide population around 170,000 animals. Populations are over objective in 77 of the 105 districts counted. The statewide elk population has increased by about 25% since the inception of the current Elk Management Plan in 2004.
The chart below shows how close to objective different districts are around the state. Those districts that are furthest from objective levels are the districts where the Commission has imposed a limited permit draw.
Existing management practices clearly are not working. New solutions are needed to bring populations in line with objective levels. The Rural Montanan Foundation produced a comprehensive report on elk management, which concluded with the following recommended solutions: