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Wildlife Drought Contingency Plan

OBJECTIVE I.—Maintain, enhance or prevent deterioration of wildlife habitat.

OBJECTIVE II. —Focus additional harvest where game populations are above objective.

OBJECTIVE III. —Provide damage assistance to private landowners affected by drought and/or wild fire.

OBJECTIVE IV.— Provide recreational opportunity where possible and where possible mitigate for lost hunting opportunity resulting from wild fire related land closures.

OBJECTIVE V.— Encourage sportsmen to donate to established programs, which provide livestock feed and financial assistance to private landowners who have been directly affected by drought and/or wild fire.

OBJECTIVE VI.— Discourage supplemental feeding of wildlife by public entities or private individuals.


During periods of drought, the FWP Wildlife Division will monitor wildlife populations, document drought impacts, inform the public of how wildlife populations are faring and taking appropriate management action as needed based on the divisions drought specific objectives above.

FWPs hunting seasons and quotas are based upon the current status of the wild populations based on the biology of the animal and its habitat, landowner tolerance, and sportsmens desires. This enables some flexibility in that populations are generally somewhat below the average forage producing capacity of most ranges in the state.

However, when drought conditions extend into the early fall period, with increased danger of wild fire, it affects wildlife habitat and directly impacts wildlife distribution and hunter opportunity. Game harvest can also be affected through land closures enacted during the wild fire season.

For this reason, FWP has developed an array of policies to address the impact of drought on wild populations. The division will:

  • communicate and deal with hunting season closures resulting from wild fire;
  • provide the best hunting opportunities possible under the circumstances;
  • offset the loss of hunting opportunities in areas severely affected by drought; and to assist private landowners directly impacted by wild fire.

Objectives and Strategies

Here is a summary of the objectives and strategies employed during periods of drought.


Identify priority habitat management actions required to maintain, enhance or prevent deterioration of wildlife habitat values on public and private lands.

Strategy A:

Protect and enhance wildlife habitat that is seriously threatened by acquiring interest in land.

FWPs Habitat Montana Program emphasizes acquiring interest in land to protect and enhance important wildlife habitat, which may seriously threatened. The current goal (October 1993 2006) is to conserve approximately 10% of the intermountain grassland, shrub-grassland, and riparian ecosystem land types.

Strategy B:

Provide assistance to private landowners through the Upland Game Bird Habitat Enhancement Program to develop, enhance, and conserve upland game bird habitat in Montana.

FWPs Upland Game Bird Habitat Enhancement Program provides assistance to landowners toestablish suitable nesting cover, winter cover and food plots, range improvements and shelterbelt plantings through cost sharing programs, leases and conservation easements. The resulting improvements in range condition provide the necessary forage to better support both wildlife and livestock.

Strategy C:

Cooperate with the NRCS to provide landowners under contract with the FWP Upland Game Bird Enhancement Program opportunities to hay or graze Conservation Reserve program enrolled lands in emergencies situations declared bythe NRCS.


Focus additional harvest where game populations are above objective.

Strategy A:

Implement season structure and quota adjustments in areas where populations exceed previously set objectives.

The FWP Commission establishes hunting season regulations for all big game species once every two years. Harvest quotas for deer, elk, and antelope are adjusted annually. Tentative hunting regulations are established in December with finals set in February. Quota levels are established following winter and summer surveys to determine animal survival and production. Final quotas are adopted in July and August for the subsequent fall season.

Public participation is encouraged with public meetings and open houses conducted during January before final season regulations are established. Additionally, written comment and public testimony during commission meetings is provided for prior to all tentative seasons and quotas being finalized.

Strategy B:

Address situations where restricted hunter access is preventing desired harvest through community based initiatives.

Examples include the Devils Kitchen Working Group near Great Falls and the Madison Valley Landowners Association near Ennis, Montana.

FW&P cooperates with these working groups, which discuss game population issues and develop cooperative landowner/sportsmen efforts to address them. FWP will encourage other established community organizations like these to address local wildlife issues.


Provide damage assistance to private landowners who have been directly affected by drought and/or wild fire.

Year 2000 example:

The fires of 2000 resulted in hunting closures in nearly one half the state for at least a portion of the hunting season.

Landowners within this area temporarily had no opportunity to hunt. In addition, many landowners lost private and public pasture for livestock because of the fires. Many landowners had to bring cows home from public allotments or other private pastures because they were destroyed by fire or the fire danger was eminent.

Although most big game survive wild fires, they naturally redistribute to areas with remaining forage and may at least temporarily us agricultural lands. Because these private lands are also being used by wildlife they are competing with livestock for a limited amount of forage.  This situation can worsen as winter comes. Additionally, damage to haystacks is expected to occur.  This situation is exacerbated by drought.

Game damage complaints may escalate if winter weather conditions are extreme. By law, FWPs current policy is to assist only those landowners who have provided public hunting and have not significantly reduced public hunting through imposed restrictions.

It is important that those landowners within fire closure areas who have provided public hunting in previous years continue to receive priority for game damage assistance. However, due to extreme circumstances resulting from drought and wildfire, FWP will also consider providing assistance to previously unqualified landowners within the fire-impacted areas during the current winter only. Such actions could provide necessary temporary relief from game damage impacts and may:

1) Provide additional recreational opportunity through game damage hunts and increased public hunting during the general season on previously closed or restricted private land in a year when hunting seasons have been restricted, and,

2) Provide an incentive for landowners who have previously restricted hunting to provide public hunting in the future, and,

3) Increase landowner tolerance for wildlife on their lands, which may be competing with livestock for limited forage.

Strategy A:

Modify game damage assistance policy in years with extraordinary wild fire conditions as follows:

Due to an fire season, FWP will, pursuant to 87-1-225 (2), also consider providing game damage assistance to landowners owning 160 acres or more in locations where fire directly affected agricultural operations, and for operations which might not otherwise qualify for game damage assistance for the current winter only. The type and amount of assistance will be provided based upon public hunting opportunities during the current fall season and in the future. All materials provided will be reclaimed by FWP if public hunting is not provided in subsequent years.

Strategy B:

In areas that have experienced severe winter weather events and have been declared federal disaster areas:

1) FWP will consider suspending the game damage program policy prohibiting FWP staff from killing animals under kill permits issued to landowners, and instruct field staff to kill animals in damage situations where landowners are unable to do so.

2) FW&P will request the FWP Commission reduce the price of the nonresident deer B license to stimulate a high hunter response to game damage deer hunts.

3) FW&P will request the FWP Commission authorize the use of additional game damage permit/license authorizations for areas with significant landowner complaints of wildlife damage.

4) FW&P will request the FWP Commission authorize additional game damage hunts in areas with significant landowner complaints of wildlife damage.

Strategy C:

Game Damage Supplemental Licenses for antlerless deer, elk or antelope will be considered an option in lieu of issuing kill permits to landowners in specific circumstances (87-2-520).

Strategy D:

Additional elk permits (HB 454) may be issued in specific locations where cooperative landowners have entered into a hunting access agreement with FW&P.


Provide recreational opportunity where possible and mitigate for lost hunting opportunity resulting from wild fire related land closures.

Strategy A: 

Utilize hunting as the primary means to control game populations versus trapping a transplanting and landowner kill permits.

Strategy B:

Request FWP Commission delay opening of the bighorn sheep hunting season in the unlimited hunting districts if the entire district is closed by the governor under a level 5 fire danger closure order. In order to protect the ram segment in the no quota unlimited bighorn sheep districts, the delay in these districts should not result in extension of the season beyond November 1.

Strategy C:

Recommend refund license fees for hunters who could not utilize the license during any portion of the hunting season due to a governor ordered fire danger closure.

Strategy D:

An extension of hunting seasons may be requested in response to hunting season closures resulting from level 5 fire danger closer initiated by the governor. 


Season Extension: Additional days of hunting added on to the end of the established season.


1. Provide recreational opportunity where possible

2. Obtain some level of harvest commensurate with population status and post-fire habitat conditions. In some cases, more security for big game will be an issue and in others a herd reduction may be appropriate because of winter range condition and winter forage loss due to fire.


  • If >60% of season length under level 5 closure FWP may request the FWP commission consider extension of season to provide reasonable hunting opportunity, unless a subsequent season is impacted.

For purposes of hunting season extensions:

1) If all of species distribution is within level 5 closures then entire hunting district should be considered closed.

2) If level 5 closure results in all public land being closed and adjacent private land is known to also be closed by the landowner, then entire hunting district should be considered closed.


Encourage sportsmen to donate to established programs, which provide livestock feed and financial assistance to private landowners who have been directly affected by drought and/or wild fire.

Strategy A:

Utilize news releases and other media to inform sportsmen of established programs they can support which assist landowners who have been directly affected by drought and/or wild fire. Providing livestock feed at a time when wildlife may be competing for limited forage will improve landowner tolerance for wildlife foraging on private land during the fall and winter.  It will provide high-visibility opportunity to pull together sportsmen and landowners. It demonstrates FWP awareness of and willingness to assist affected landowners. It directs feeding to livestock and not wildlife. It supports landowners who are currently allowing public access and encourages others who are not currently doing so.


Discourage supplemental feeding of wildlife by public entities or private individuals.

FWPs big game management program works to protect and enhance habitats crucial to the yearlong maintenance of free-ranging big game herds sustained by natural forage.

Because of the negative impacts of artificial feeding on soils, vegetation and wildlife populations, as well as the propagation of disease, FWP actively discourages supplemental feeding by public entities or private individuals.  State law (87-3-130 MCA) specifically prohibits the supplemental feeding of game animals when there is a risk of disease transmission. 

There is little doubt that big game animals, especially cervids, can be fed an artificial diet that will sustain them. However, winter feeding is usually unnecessary and results in competition with livestock producers for feed, reduced genetic fitness, continued overuse of available native forage, soil erosion, return of previously fed animals to feeding areas in subsequent years, increased numbers of animals on a reduced native forage base, increased potential for disease and parasite transmission, a small percentage of animals being fed, loss of fear of humans, added stress and social herd structure disruption. 

The following criteria for providing emergency supplemental feed are established for use in years with extraordinary wild fires to insure any feeding will be conducted only where absolutely necessary and in a manner that does not perpetuate a feeding program in the future.

Criteria for Establishing Emergency Winter Feeding in Areas Impacted by Extraordinary Wild Fire during the summer and fall seasons:

An evaluation by FWP biologists and other regional personnel will be conducted. The evealuation will describe in detail the big game population status in relation to management objectives.

In addition, an assessment of the fire-impacted area, including the percent of winter range forage burned and an estimate of remaining forage will be made. Hunting opportunities and current and future benefits to sportsmen must be a part of the evaluation.

Any emergency winter-feeding of big game during the winter must meet the FWP criteria and be approved by the Regional Supervisor in consultation with the Wildlife, Enforcement and Field Services Administrators.

Elk feeding will also meet requirements of the Elk Feeding Policy (ARM12.9.104).

  1. stating with inter range forage has been totally removed by fire and little or no fall regrowth occurs, or forage that remains is insufficient to sustain the population through the winter, and,
    1. Population is below management objective, and,
    2. No adjacent public land winter range is available
  2. Emergency winter-feeding will not begin before the end of the hunting season or before the potential for herd reduction via a late-season hunt has been assessed (winter feeding will generally begin no earlier than January 1).
  3. Winter-feeding will end no later than April 1.
  4. Certified weed free pelleted rations specifically developed for feeding wild big game will be used as a first priority to reduce competition for hay with private landowners and reduce acclimating elk to feeding on hay on private land in the future.
  5. Feeding stations will be on public land if possible and be widely spread and changed frequently to prevent animal concentration and to minimize disease and parasite transmission. (Public land feeding will require an Environmental Assessment).
  6. If in certain situations hay is used, it must be certified weed free.