Outdoor groups get stake in elk management lawsuit

Deb Hill
Thursday, September 15, 2022
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Several outdoor groups have been granted the right to intervene in a lawsuit over elk management filed in Fergus County. Photo courtesy of Kristine Manley

Last week District Court Judge Heather Perry granted a motion from a coalition of outdoor groups allowing them to intervene in a lawsuit filed by a property rights group charging Fish, Wildlife and Parks with failing to manage elk in Montana.

The groups, including Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Montana Bowhunters Association, the Montana Wildlife Federation and others, now have standing to represent another voice in elk management.

The United Property Owners of Montana, UPOM, filed suit against FWP in April in Fergus County’s Tenth Judicial District Court. UPOM alleges that the state has failed to meet its legal mandate to manage elk populations within objective (the number determined to be appropriate for habitat conditions).

That failure, UPOM said, has led to damage to private properties in areas where elk populations are too high.

“Excess elk populations, growing out of control, have had a real impact on agriculture,” said Chuck Denowh, spokesperson for UPOM. “They consume ranchers’ feed and forage, and are hard on fences. In some areas we have elk populations that are 10 times over objective, but Fish, Wildlife and Parks is only allowing a few hundred permits to hunt. We brought this problem to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, but it chose to keep the status quo again this year. On behalf of the private property owners who own the land that supports the elk, we sued Fish, Wildlife and Parks.”

UPOM’s suit asked the judge to compel FWP to design and implement a plan within 90 days that would be in compliance with state law. UPOM asked the judge to order FWP to remove, harvest or eliminate thousands of elk, and to make elk management decisions based on population numbers and landowner tolerance.

In June several hunting and conservation groups filed a motion to intervene on behalf of FWP, calling the UPOM lawsuit “an attack on wildlife management.” With Judge Perry’s agreement, the groups now have status in the lawsuit as interveners – those not named in the original suit but who have a stake in the outcome.

The coalition of groups includes the Helena Hunters and Anglers, Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Montana Bowhunters Association, Montana Wildlife Federation, Public Land Water Access Association and Skyline Sportsmen.

“At the crux of this lawsuit is UPOM claiming FWP isn’t providing them with enough tools to manage elk in Montana, while UPOM is at the same time ignoring and refusing to use all the tools FWP already provides landowners to manage elk in Montana,” said Doug Krings, a Lewistown member of Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “It’s absurdity, and a giant waste of hunters’ license money now needed to defend this.”

Krings said there are already many tools for property owners seeking to reduce elk numbers.

“If UPOM wants fewer elk on their properties, then they should use block management, the hunt roster, landowner permits, unlimited B tags, shoulder seasons or 454 agreements,” he argued.

Denowh said the same is true for FWP – there are tools the agency hasn’t been willing to use to reduce elk population numbers.

“Hunting is one of the tools available to address elk populations. FWP could undertake kill permits, damage hunts or even relocate populations,” Denowh said. “They’re not using their own tools. The onus shouldn’t be on the landowner to open their property to strangers. They have a right to privacy.”

Denowh said he believes the interveners are more interested in trophy hunting than in protecting elk habitat.

“UPOM is really disappointed in the interveners position,” Denowh said. “They just want bigger bulls, which is awfully selfish. We need to take care of people who own the land first. Trophy elk districts come at a great cost to landowners.”

Krings said he believes some UPOM members are more interested in profiting from a public resource through paid guided hunts than in healthy elk populations.

“It certainly makes us believe that this isn’t - and never has been - about elk numbers; it’s about bull tags and the ability to privatize and commercialize a public resource. Montana BHA won’t sit idly by and watch this happen, which is why we’re appreciative of the court for recognizing our role as interveners,” Krings said.

Although it’s been several months since the lawsuit was filed, the case is still only in the beginning stages.

“Excess elk populations, growing out of control, have had a real impact on agriculture,” Chuck Denowh, United Property Owners of Montana