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The last few decades in Montana have seen a remarkable recovery in wildlife populations. For example, Montana’s elk population was down to almost 20,000 animals in 1940. By 1970, it had increased somewhat to 55,000. But after that, we’ve seen rapid growth to nearly 160,000 animals today.

That’s simply an astounding recovery. And other species, like deer and antelope, are at or near all-time highs as well.

The restoration of Montana wildlife is due to a number of factors, but the predominant reason is the efforts of Montana landowners. A great deal of the credit goes to private property owners for changing management practices and improving habitat.  

We simply wouldn’t have the strong wildlife populations we have today without private landowners. After all, a majority of Montana’s wildlife makes their homes on private land.

Landowners are proud to lead the way in wildlife conservation, but it doesn’t come without a cost. A moderate elk population is estimated to cost an average-sized Montana ranch more than $25,000 annually, including lost forage and repairs to damaged fences and other property.

Collectively, wildlife costs agricultural producers about $30 million each year. Fortunately, Montana landowners appreciate the value that wildlife bring, and are usually willing to bear those costs.

But sometimes wildlife populations reach such levels that the landowner faces real problems for her operation. In those cases, it’s not fair to expect the landowner to suffer in order to support the wildlife that we all benefit from. We have a responsibility to help those landowners out.

It’s time to set one misconception straight. Montana does not pay landowners for game damage. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks may provide in-kind payments, like woven wire for a fence, but does not provide cash. And in many cases, the landowner doesn’t want an in-kind payment; he simply wants help in dispersing the problematic wildlife.

FWP has a limited set of tools at their disposal to disperse concentrations of wildlife. One of the best tools, both for the landowner and for hunters, is a game damage hunt.

In a damage-hunt scenario, FWP issues special permits to hunters and allow them to hunt in the area where landowners are experiencing problems. The hunting pressure is usually enough to thin the wildlife numbers to manageable levels.

But in recent years, FWP has begun using damage hunts arbitrarily, allowing them for some landowners and not for others. Existing law provides a caveat for damage hunts, specifying that they are only available for landowners that allow “public” hunting.

Almost all Montana landowners allow permission-based, non-fee hunting on their property — in a recent FWP survey fewer, than 7% of landowners indicated that their hunting access is exclusively leased, dedicated to outfitters, or they don’t allow any hunting at all. Over 93 percent of Montana landowners allow what FWP refers to as “public” hunting.

But simply allowing “public” hunting — as the existing statute stipulates — isn’t good enough for FWP. In recent years they’ve been arbitrarily applying the damage hunt law to try to coerce additional concessions out of landowners. It’s an ugly practice, and it’s got many landowners extremely frustrated.

The incredible animosity that FWP has fostered with Montana’s landowners has already had an impact on access. Some landowners have dropped out of the popular block management program and others have ceased to allow all hunting in protest of FWP’s poor management and hostile attitude. The practice of granting game damage hunts arbitrarily has thrown gasoline on this fire.

The legislature is looking at ways to solve this problem by simply striking the term “public” from existing law. In other words, they’d eliminate FWP’s ability to pick and choose which landowners are eligible for game damage hunts, and apply them fairly for any property where hunting is allowed.

It’s time that Montana landowners start getting the respect they deserve from FWP. We’ve gladly provided excellent habitat that has helped our wildlife populations reach historic highs, and we willingly bear the costs of those wildlife most of the time. But when wildlife populations reach that tipping point where they start causing problems, we owe it to them to provide relief.