"Porcupine Trail" by Elliot P. is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Environmental Quality Council has spent a good part of their time during the interim in putting together a study to assess access on public land in Montana, in particular on how road closures on federal land have affected access.  Their study also looks at elk distribution and how less access may have affected elk harvests.  A copy of the draft report can be found here.

And below you can read the comments that we submitted to the committee:

Dear Members of the Environmental Quality Council:

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on your HJ 13 study on public-land roads, access, and wildlife distribution.

There are several things that we suggest you include in your Findings & Recommendations for the final version of the report.

Inaccessible Public Parcels

First, the report identifies “3,116,800 acres of public land (that) cannot be accessed by a legal road or water access,” nearly all of which is owned either by the state of Montana or the BLM.

Our organization supported legislation to create tax credits for landowners who allow access across their property to landlocked public parcels.  However, if there is a policy objective of substantially increasing access to public land, the most effective means to achieve that is to take a serious look at land exchanges.

In our experience there has been very little cooperation from state and federal agencies to work with landowners in exchanging landlocked parcels.  One policy recommendation from your report should be to make it a priority for state land managers to look for exchange opportunities.

Second, your report findings should give a clear understanding of the scope of this problem.  While 3 million acres is a lot of land, in perspective it is only 10% of all public lands in Montana.  The public has access to the vast majority of public land—contrary to the anti-landowner political narrative we so often hear about the public being locked out of their land.

This is especially true to for land with elk habitat.  Of the 3 million acres of inaccessible public land, less than 1 million acres is identified as land that elk may inhabit.

These facts should remain prominent findings in your report.

Elk Distribution

Third, the report findings note increasing elk distribution on private land, but fails to elaborate much on that point.  While more of our elk have moved onto private land, the overall hunter success rate has remained relatively steady over that time, indicating that access is increasing on private land.

The chart titled “Elk Harvest by Landowner and Access” bears out this fact by showing that the vast majority of landowners allow some form of public access—less than 10% charge an access fee or outfit their property.

The facts that nearly all Montana landowners allow public access and that the data indicates that access on private land is increasing should be included in the report’s findings.

In closing, it is unrealistic and unfair to expect private landowners to continue to offer more and more access for hunting, in response to a problem that FWP has created by using limited permits to grow the elk herd.  The problem is an expansion of elk where they never existed, not a “loss” of access.  As the elk numbers increase on private land this will continue to be a conflict.

Each time FWP has proposed a “solution” for access, they always approach it with an element of control over the landowner.  FWP wants to control who is allowed access, how many are allowed, etc.  A true effort to address the problem must include FWP returning to the Elk Management Plan and implementing liberal seasons when and where elk populations indicate, without discrimination.