Guest opinion: Let’s fix the 454 public elk hunting access agreements |  Columnists

Guest opinion: Let’s fix the 454 public elk hunting access agreements | Columnists

JAKE SCHWALLER

Since the now-infamous program was discovered by wealthy, out-of-state landowners like the Texas-based Wilks Brothers, FWP’s public elk hunting access agreements have become a point of great contention.

The intent of these agreements (colloquially known as 454 agreements) is something to celebrate. They began in 2001 as elk management tools that increased public access and opportunity while providing cooperating landowners with coveted licenses and permits to hunt their own land. Importantly, they prohibited landowners from selling these permits.

The agreements were seldom used, however.

Over the last few sessions, Montana’s legislature has sweetened the deal for non-resident landowners in particular. Crammed into Rep. Seth Berglee’s (R-Joliet) 32-page HB 637 from 2021, which was heavily amended and passed on the second-to-last day of the session and with no public input, 454s were changed yet again. The ratio of public hunters to landowner permits was lowered to 3-to-1, and, notably, landowners were given the ability to then pick one of those three public hunters; previously, FWP randomly selected all public hunters. Somewhere along the line, the ambiguity of the program also led landowners and the 1/3 of public hunters they themselves chose the ability to hunt limited-entry bulls, while the public hunters selected by FWP were left to only hunt cow elk, often in the dead of winter during the shoulder seasons.

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The original 454s weren’t controversial, largely because the public got limited access to elk that were previously off-limits. And landowners certainly deserve compensation for providing public opportunity, not to mention the quality habitat they provide for our shared public wildlife.

But the recent changes have Montanans saying, ‘no deal.’

Last year, agreements were being approved mid-hunting season, and even though the language around these clearly states it’s a management tool — and that the department can debate the ratio and the commission may (or may not) approve these — there was seemingly no hesitation to rubber-stamp these, creating a spike of wealthy, non-resident landowners who saw 454s as painless ways to receive bull permits. The pattern was clear: 454s were becoming more about bull elk for billionaires while the public hunter was only brought in later to harvest some cows.

There are ways to fix this.

1) Use 454s as intended, as elk management tools, with an emphasis on management. Local biologists and wildlife managers should be the ones driving these agreements only in areas with elk management and distribution issues, and then work with willing landowners in those districts to finalize. Removing Helena staff from the process will diminish appearances of political influence.

2) FWP should increase the ratio and return to selecting all public hunters, not just 2/3 of them, and not just the cow hunters; Landowners should retain the right to refuse hunters based on past experiences. Hunters must be allowed access during the general seasons. If landowners need increased cow harvest during the shoulder seasons, those opportunities are now widely available (often unlimited), not to mention the hunt roster damage hunts at their disposal as well.

3) Permits should be limited to only the landowner, immediate family or full-time employee of agricultural operation who lives in Montana. These permits must never be transferable or salable.

4) Currently, landowner permits top out at 15% of total permits available in limited-quota districts; these 454s are an unlimited addition to that. There needs to be a participation cap and approvals need to be timed with the existing landowner permit allocations and draws.

5) Detailed and reporting must be a requirement to participate to ensure the agreements are working.

Once it’s reformed and no longer functions as a ‘bulls for billionaires’ program, Montanans could enthusiastically support these agreements. Until then, they’ll further divide the hunting public and the landowner community, something none of us want.

Jake Schwaller sits on the board of Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers and is an ambassador for the Montana Citizen’s Elk Management Coalition. He lives in Billings.

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