Landowners ask for larger influence in managing Montana’s elk population
for Tri-State Livestock News
He didn’t want to sell this spring.
But when Rocco Carroccia looked at the amount of rain they’d received this spring in south-central Montana and the condition of the owned or leased range, he had a decision to make.
“Everything that I didn’t think I could reasonably carry on the ground we had went on a trailer,” he said.
Carroccia’s family ranches on the eastern slope of the Crazy Mountains, in Sweet Grass County, Montana. He was one of five ranchers represented on a panel discussion about dealing with elk at the 2016 Montana Range Tour. The state-wide tour was hosted by the Sweet Grass County Conservation District Sept. 7-8.
“I realize the Fish and Wildlife feel like they are limited in what they can do to manage these elk,” Carroccia said. “But it wasn’t very palatable to me, either, to put those livestock on a truck knowing I wasn’t going to be making money on them.
“But I did it because it was the right thing to do. I’m the land manager, and it’s my job to make decisions to protect my resources.”
If he hadn’t chosen to shrink the herd, he went on, it would have been his rangeland that suffered, which would have been a long-term loss greater than selling cows in an unsavory market.
“Unfortunately, when we’re dealing with the people making these decisions on how to manage the elk populations, they don’t own or lease the land,” he said. “Because if they did, we would not be over objective with elk. They might take some heat over how we get rid of them, but if we are responsible land managers, we would be managing these elk better.”
Population and distribution
The elk problem is twofold, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 5 Supervisor Barb Beck said. She and Montana state Brucellosis Program Veterinarian Eric Liska joined the ranchers on the discussion panel.
“It’s the number of elk, but it’s also where they are: we’re dealing with population and distribution issues,” Beck said.
The latest FWP estimates show there are 163,843 elk in Montana. The target population, based on the FWP’s 2004 Elk Management Plan, is 92,138. Those numbers were set in the early 2000s based on landowner, biologist and public input on the carrying capacity of the landscape.
“So we have a little over one and a half times the number even we say is a good number of elk in Montana,” Beck said.
On that eastern slope of the Crazy Mountains, there are around 4,000 elk, Carroccia said: “In the past 15, 20 years, it’s become overrun with elk.”
“I think we all want to see some elk on the landscape,” Liska said. “But, large groups on the landscape that are grouped tightly together increases the likelihood for disease and compounds those issues. It’s how they are spread across the landscape that really matters.”
Representative Alan Redfield (R-Livingston) also ranches in the Paradise Valley. In 2000, he put up a 9-foot tall electric fence around a hay meadow in order to keep the elk out and harvest a hay crop.
“I don’t mind elk – in fact, I really enjoy them. But 250 head, year-round, hanging out on the hay meadow – that’s where we have problems,” he said.
Too many of the elk have abandoned migratory patterns and have vacated traditional backcountry habitat for greener valleys year-round, Redfield pointed out.
Bill Brownlee raises cattle in the Boulder Valley south of Big Timber and north of the Absarokee-Beartooth Wilderness.
“In this valley, we didn’t have elk on us until 15, 20 years ago. They didn’t spend any time on private land until the wolf came around in the backcountry,” he said. He’s watched the number of outfitters in the backcountry dwindle over the same period, too. “The problem is, the distribution is primarily on private land, and that’s just the opposite of what it’s supposed to be.”
State veterinarian Eric Liska said studying FWP data on elk movements and herd distributions reveals interesting distribution patterns based on habitat and available forage. Several ranchers on the panel joked: we’ve done too good of a job taking care of the land; of course they want to be on our land.
“Have the wolves played a part in this? Absolutely. But I also think humans play a tremendous role, too,” Liska said.
Access’ impact on distribution
Compacting the issue of elk population and distribution is evolving landownership and use. Absentee or out-of-state interests now checkerboard land once used for agricultural production.
“There are landowners who are not dependent on agriculture for their living, and they like a lot of elk on their land,” Beck said. “They can have a lot of elk on their property, and still, to them, it’s not enough.”
The ranchers and wildlife experts watch as elk settle in to a safe harbor during hunting season, then return to hay meadows and grazing land after the season closes.
“It’s an almost impossible task as long as we have landowners who don’t allow hunting and harbor these animals,” Nathan Anderson said. “They know their safe havens.”
Nathan Anderson and his wife, Jennie Anderson, also ranch near Melville, Montana.
“But, I don’t think we have any business telling other private landowners to allow access,” Carroccia said. “I think we better leave private property rights alone; leave it completely out of this discussion and look for other tools to manage this population.”
While the discussions often intertwine, Carroccia said hunter access and elk populations must be dealt with as separate issues.
“I understand the need for access and the desire from the public for access, but [elk over-population] been used as a hammer to beat on ranchers over hunter access to private land. Those things should not be talked about in the same sentence.”
The panel discussed a suggestion to issue management permits to allow landowners or agencies to harvest larger numbers at a time when the herds are on private land.
“When they leave the safe havens, then we’re ready to manage that – it’s not a hunt, it’s a management tool being used to protect our natural resources,” Carroccia said.
Understanding that would be an unpopular option for FWP to implement among sportsman and some of the general public, he said it’s time to do the right thing to care for the state’s land resources.
“We’re trying to solve a problem with the tools we have, and those tools are simply not working. Hunting one, two at a time just isn’t working,” Carrocia said.
Last year, the Montana FWP implemented shoulder seasons in 43 hunting districts, focused on antlerless elk on private land. The seasons extended beyond the regular five-week general firearms season, ranging from mid-August to mid-February, depending on the hunting district. The shoulder seasons are again being offered in 43 hunting districts this year.
“The shoulder season shows good faith – it’s a good start,” Jennie Anderson said. “But it’s not the solution.”
Hunting – the primary tool
“The fact is, we don’t have enough hunters to manage the population,” Redfield said. The idea of allowing a landowner or agency to harvest a large number from a herd at one time would be “really impalpable to the public,” he said. “So we have to rely on elk hunting. Elk hunting can be a tool, but to drop the numbers we have to drop to have a healthy population, that’s just not going to do it.”
It’s not just the grazing or hay production lost, Jennie Anderson pointed out. The large elk herds bust through fences that require additional maintenance, re-building, plus gathering cattle that have gotten out.
“If hunting is our only tool, it’s already been shown to not be effective,” Jennie Anderson said. And, that tool takes time, too – “It’s time to manage the hunters, time to make sure they follow the rules, time to make sure they know where they’re going, time to help them out – and time is our livelihood.”
Redfield and Liska each shared examples from other areas of the state where hiring a hunting manager for the area helped alleviate some of that burden from landowners. But the hunt manager must be paid, and it has to be the right personality who knows the ranchers and ranches intimately.
Carroccia added: “I’m willing to even do some of that, if it would really help move the population needle…but I literally can’t let enough people on my land to control this elk population. They can’t even make a dent.”
Hunting success numbers aren’t encouraging, either. In 2015, nearly 105,000 hunters harvested just under 31,000 elk, according to the FWP harvest report. That’s just under 18 percent of the population. In order to impact the population and keep up with the calf crops, Beck said hunters would need to be harvesting around 30 percent of the state’s herd each year.
“They’re saying we have to put our faith in sportsmen to manage this,” Nathan Anderson said. “But it’s just a sport to them – it’s not their livelihood. They don’t really have skin in the game.
“We do need some other tool to manage this population, and we’re going to have to get a little creative to do it. This is just not working.”
Pusthing them back to public land
It’s complicated. That’s an understatement, but it’s also an accurate depiction of the issues at hand, Beck said.
She stressed the importance of looking at the whole, complex picture of managing the landscape. That means not just figuring out ways to reduce the population, but bring balance back to the distribution, too.
“We want to encourage those populations to go back to public land and off private land,” she said. The Gallatin and Lewis and Clark National Forest Plans are currently up for revision. She suggested landowners use those forest management plans as a time to advocate for better elk habitat on the forest service land to work to attract elk back to traditional habitats.
Redfield said another point to note is being stronger advocates for livestock grazing on public lands – there’s a reason the elk and other ungulates end up on grazing range.
“We know from watching the Game Range that the elk will follow the cattle,” Redfield said, pointing out that the elk like the short, tender re-growth after livestock have grazed. “They’ve cut grazing out of public lands and took all the sheep out of the backcountry. It was the grazing that kept that land in shape and kept it healthy, and kept the wildlife there, too.”
Beck said the state’s elk management plan would be up for review in two years as well, and the agency has already received “strong direction” from the legislature and from landowners that the over-population must be dealt with.
“I don’t think addressing this problem should be delayed any longer,” Brownlee said. “It needs dealt with now, not another two or four years down the road when they have a new management plan.”
They all agreed – landowners must have a strong and active voice in shaping that plan in order to take care of the land and care for a healthier wildlife population. They discussed the possibility to create population objectives based on hunting districts and more specifically, the current land use, winter forage availability and carrying capacity of smaller areas.
“Managing those elk by not doing anything is not managing the elk,” Carroccia said. “We have a resource that we need to manage.”