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Fish, Wildlife Commission Nixes Quota Ranges

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission voted last week to scrap quota ranges in trophy-hunting districts, a decision that drew criticism from hunters concerned about politics steering the allocation of tags.

The commission’s unanimous decision came during the latter half of an eighthour meeting on Thursday, Dec. 14, where the commission adopted regulations to guide Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ management of big game species over the next two years.

Quotas are a tool game managers use to establish the number of tags that will be issued to hunters pursuing a given species in a given hunting district. By removing department-approved quota ranges in trophy-hunting districts, FWP has shifted some of the department’s authority onto the commission, which is a governor-appointed body.

When FWP Big Game Bureau Chief Brian Wakeling pitched commissioners on its deer and elk recommendations, he described the removal of quota ranges for trophy-hunting districts as a move that wouldn’t dramatically change deer and elk numbers.

“The permit quota ranges influence population trajectories to a very minimal amount,” he said. “Bulls and bucks don’t affect trajectory.”

FWP director Dustin Temple added that the commission will still have an opportunity to weigh in on quotas for limited-entry hunting districts, or areas where a capped number of permits are meted out via drawing. Permits to hunt in those districts are highly coveted by both resident and nonresident hunters because they tend to produce trophy animals.

“It was the judgment of the department that a change to an opportunity like that deserved the public process that coming back to the commission requires,” Temple said. “It’s not that the department cannot or may not choose to propose a quota change — we will simply come back to this body and ask for your assent to do so.”

When Henry “Hank” Worsech took the helm of FWP, Gov. Greg Gianforte tasked him with finding a new approach to balancing landowner concerns with hunter opportunity. In the aftermath of Worsech’s attempt to shake up the status quo, the department has been thrust into a lawsuit while hunters organize themselves in anticipation of the 2023 legislative session.

During public comment on the 14 pages of recommendations FWP forwarded to commissioners, Kevin Farron with the Montana Chapter of Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers described the quota range removal as a “deeply concerning” departure from a “biologically backed, publicly vetted process.”

“This would create a scenario where this body could effectively eliminate any meaningful quotas or change our deer and elk hunting opportunities to a free-for-all. Or, just as concerning, this could result in a reduction in opportunities without biological justifications,” Farron said. “We would appreciate it if you act conservatively here.”

Lewistown resident Jess Wagner argued that removing quota ranges would “handcuff biologists” by making it difficult for them to respond to a relatively sudden occurrence like significant winterkill.

“Any changes will likely be made a year too late,” Wagner said, adding that all 25 public comments that mentioned that portion of the department’s recommendations were in opposition to it.

The Montana Outfitters and Guides Association praised the suite of deer and elk recommendations the commission adopted in an emailed press release. MOGA Executive Director Mac Minard thanked the commission for addressing hunter overcrowding and working to address issues such as the decline in mule deer numbers that’s been reported in eastern Montana.

In recent years, Montana’s approach to elk management has come under increasing public scrutiny as wildlife managers seek to balance landowner, resident hunter and outfitter interests.

Last year the United Property Owners of Montana sued FWP and the commission, arguing that an overabundance of elk is creating hardship for large landowners who are losing livestock forage to elk.

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