Thursday, September 23, 2004
State wildlife officials released today a draft environmental assessment and proposed revisions to Montana's 12-year-old elk management plan.
The 90-page draft environmental assessment presents two elk management alternatives for public comment. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks prepared the EA to accompany the wildlife agency's 400-page draft of the updated elk management plan.
Statewide meetings to discuss and review the documents are set for October. Public comment will be taken for 45 days, from Sept. 24 through Nov. 8.
"While most long-term trends show that Montana's elk populations and hunter success are in good shape, elk managers continue to face some critical problems," said Gary Hammond, FWP's wildlife management bureau chief in Helena. "The updated elk plan will help us better address the needs of elk, elk hunters, and private landowners."
The goals of the updated elk plan are to:
* sustain and manage elk populations for public benefits;
* develop solutions to elk conflicts on private land;
* promote elk habitat conservation;
* provide elk-related recreation; and
* involve the public in wildlife-management planning.
Hammond said issues like hunting-access restrictions and the recent string of mild winters caused elk numbers and populations in some areas to out pace hunter harvests, despite increases in elk hunting permits and more liberal hunting seasons. "The result is increased game-damage incidents, more private-landowner complaints, and frustrated hunters." Hammond said.
Montana's first statewide elk management plan was completed in 1992 following one of FWP's most aggressive attempts to take a plan to the people of Montana for comment, discussion and approval. That plan, for the first time, established statewide elk management population objectives and divided Montana's elk habitat into 35 Elk Management Units (EMU), each with its own elk management objectives and elk population targets. The plan also contained information on the status of Montana's elk populations, hunter access, and the harvest trends for every EMU.
Today, nearly 60 percent of Montana's original EMUs exceed elk-population objectives established in 1992, while only 31 percent exceed harvest objectives. The updated elk plan divides the state into 44 EMUs to better address these and other issues.
The draft EA and statewide elk management plan is a compilation of two years of public discussions that began in November 2002 when FWP began gathering public comment from more than 400 individual on issues and concerns associated with elk and elk hunting in Montana. The process helped to identify several broad issue categories, including: elk population numbers; access to land for elk hunting; hunting-season strategies; equity of opportunity; economic concerns; biological and ecological issues, including wolves and predation; elk habitat; and how FWP gathers and uses scientific information.
The Elk Plan EA presents two alternatives for review:
* Alternative ‘A’ would maintain current programs and activities for managing and conserving elk in Montana.
* Alternative ‘B’, FWP's proposed action, would adopt an Adaptive Harvest Management process for elk, to include specific population objectives, a set of "standard, liberal, and restrictive" hunting regulation packages, and a monitoring program.
"Under the proposed system of management, specific population objectives are identified, as they were in the 1992 elk plan," Hammond said. "By using AHM, however, specific management triggers--like bull-cow ratios and the number of elk observed by wildlife biologists--are tied to specific habitat conditions and then to specific regulations."
Hammond said the draft plan's array of hunting-regulation “packages” is designed to keep elk populations within area and statewide objectives. He explained that the preferred alternative's AHM approach gives Montana the latitude to respond to emerging issues and to social and environmental conditions.
As proposed, Hammond said that a standard regulation package could include a large number of antlerless-elk permits or even a week or two of either-sex elk hunting for hunters with a general elk license. A liberal regulation package could include either-sex or brow-tined bull/antlerless elk hunting for all or a portion of the hunting season, while a restrictive regulation package could require permits for most antlered and antlerless elk hunting.
"The revisions to the original elk plan help to assure hunters that we won't let elk numbers get too low and landowners are assured that we’ll work hard to knock numbers down if they get too high," Hammond said. "In areas with low habitat security and good access, FWP generally was able to control elk numbers. One lesson we learned over the past 12 years is that our regulations were not liberal enough. We feel this plan is responsive to hunters and it will help to resolve many of the conflicts we're seeing on private lands."
FWP will host a series of 23 public meeting beginning on Oct. 2 in Great Falls and ending on Oct. 21 in Billings and Dillon to take comment on the draft EA and plan.
The Elk Plan and EA are available on-line at www.fwp.state.mt.us/hunting/elkplan.html. To request a printed copy contact: FWP, Wildlife Division, P.O. Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620-0701.Public comment will be taken for 45 days, Sept. 24 through Nov. 8. Send written comments to: FWP Elk Plan Comments, Wildlife Division, P.O. Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620-0701. Send E-mail comments to: email@example.com.