MBA Regarding Breaks and 22OD Limited Permits

UPDATE: After a 2020 survey of members, the MBA is no longer opposed to the 22ODs, which are now HD 900 archery permits.

At the May Commission meeting it was announced that there would be a special meeting of the Commission on June 8th to discuss the limited permits for archery elk in both the Breaks and the 22 units outside the Breaks in regions 4, 5, and 7. The MBA is excited about the opportunity to revisit the decisions about these limited permits and would like to make our positions on these permits clear, explain the rationale behind those positions, and ask for your support as this process moves forward.

Missouri River Breaks (HDs  410, 417, 620, 621 622, 700, and 701)

As early as 2006, the MBA started to discuss with FWP the possibility of limited permits in the Breaks units and what the structure of such a system should look like. The driving force behind this move from the MBA was member input speaking to overcrowding issues, both perceived and real.

Vast amounts of publicly accessible Federal, State and Private lands coupled with unlimited permits and national notoriety of both the number and trophy quality of the Breaks elk combined to create the perfect storm turning the breaks into a mecca for the do-it-yourself, non-resident hunter looking for a public land, archery elk hunting opportunity. The MBA feels this was the major factor which pushed the number of non-resident hunters as high as 33% of the total number of hunters in these units, with the majority of the non-residents competing directly with residents for access on public lands.

Since 2008 and the implementation of limited permits in the Breaks, feedback from our membership has shown an impression of increased overall hunt quality and is largely supported by those members who choose to take advantage of this opportunity.

As a result the MBA has supported and will continue to support a limited permit system in the breaks which keeps the resident first choice applicants at or near 100% success, while in turn limiting non-residents to 10% of the total number of permits.

22 Units Outside the Breaks (22OD) 401, 403, 411, 412, 420, 426, 447, 450, 455, 500, 502, 510, 511, 520, 530, 570, 575, 580, 590, 702, 704, 705

In a nutshell, this permit system limits archery opportunity in any elk hunting district (HDs) in regions 4, 5, and 7 which is limited for general season opportunity. Simply put, if it is limited for rifle season it is limited for archery season. Prior to the permits all of these units were a general archery opportunity, and as such any hunter could take advantage of the archery opportunity while still applying for a general season permit.

By limiting the number of resident permits this automatically introduces a limit on non-resident hunters of no more than 10% of the total number of permits offered, unless there are surplus permits after all first second and third choice resident applicants are drawn, at that point the permits can be sold over the counter to non-residents.

Unlike the limited permits in the Breaks, the MBA was unaware of the intentions of the FWP and the Commission to apply a permit system similar to the one in the breaks to 23 other districts outside of the breaks until a few days before the idea was proposed at the June 2007 commission meeting. The MBA has been and continues to be opposed to the limited permits in the 22OD. (In 2009 the Commission removed HD441 from the 23OD at the request of the MBA making it the 22OD.)

The FWP and the Commission have stated several factors to justify the rationale they used for implementing the permit system as it is.  Among these, the most substantial in my mind are the relationship between unlimited opportunity and management effectiveness, equity between user groups and the distribution of opportunity, and hunt quality as it relates to the perception of overcrowding. Obviously in the interest of responsible management of the resource these topics must be explored but as with most things the opinions of what the problems are and how they should be dealt with will differ depending on the point of view.

Unlimited opportunity and management effectiveness

The FWP and Commissioners maintain that the unlimited permit system caused a situation where high numbers of public land hunters were moving elk onto private land with access controlled by commercial interests (outfitters with an unlimited client base) creating “sanctuaries” for elk. Without public access to the elk, managing the herd to population objectives as dictated in the 2004 Elk Management Plan (EMP) became impossible according to the Dept.

By limiting the number of potential clients and making non-residents dependent on a draw system the FWP and Commissioners concluded that commercial interests would have less incentive to lease private lands. One can only assume the intended consequence of the permits in this circumstance would be to increase the likelihood of public access to private lands currently being leased by outfitters and coincidentally increase harvest.

While there is no doubt that the “sanctuaries” created by limited access to private lands are creating difficult, localized circumstances for elk population management it seems inconsistent to use the EMP as a justification for the limited permits while at the same time ignoring the steps outlined  in the EMP to address elk populations which are over objective. The limited permits also fail to address what many suspect is the most rapidly growing segment of those who lease land and create “sanctuaries” for elk, residents.

The EMP provides for three levels of regulation relative to population objectives: Restrictive regulations, Standard regulations, and Liberal regulations when populations reach over 20% above objective. Therefore in areas where population management is the main priority with populations 20% over objective, the most liberal of regulations should be imposed. Limited archery permits are not part of a liberal regulation package for any of the 22OD according to the EMP. Ironically, however, limited archery permits are part of the restrictive package for each of the units included in the 22OD meant to be implemented when populations reach 20% below objective.

Likewise on page 55 of the EMP guidelines are provided to deal with elk populations where hunting by the general public is virtually non-existent during general season due to access issues and/or demand for antlerless harvest being less than required for population control, both problems cited by FWP in reaching objectives within the 22OD. In neither instance is limited archery permits suggested. Rather, local working groups, removing elk not normally accessible during general season from trend counts, establishing sub-objectives, and “a substantially more liberal regulation package than traditionally used…” are mandated.

Data provided by FWP has revealed some interesting facts regarding population objectives and the status of the 22OD relative to those objectives. In 2007 there were 6 HDs within the 22OD which were at or within 20% of objective. In 2010, after three years of the new limited permit system with increasing limits on both residents and non-residents, the number of units within 20% of objective had increased by only one. Conversely, the number of HDs in 2007 which were over 20% above population objectives was six in 2007 and by the end of 2010 the number had climbed to eleven, almost doubling. While more rigorous analysis of the data would be required to determine if the limited permits contributed to the dramatic increase in HDs over objective it is not hard to come to the conclusion that the limited permits certainly are not helping to solve the problem.

Equity of opportunity between user groups

As I stated above prior to 2008 and the limited permit system the 22od were all general archery seasons but limited for rifle hunting. Any sportsman was free to apply for a rifle permit and if not successful could take advantage of the generous archery opportunity or choose to participate in neither. After all it is not predetermined whether any of us is a rifle hunter, bow hunter, or dual season hunter. Under general regulation it was simply a matter of whether or not you choose to take advantage of the opportunity available. It doesn’t get much more equitable than that. Under a limited permit system sportsmen are forced to choose between the archery or general season opportunities creating two separate user groups and pitting them against one another.

A misconception being perpetuated by those who support the limited archery permits is that in several of the areas archery harvest is above 50% of total harvest and that is fundamentally unfair to those who choose to put in for the general season permit. This is simply not true. The harvest data in the 22OD reveals that between 2004 and 2008 not one time did the percentage of elk harvested by archers reach anywhere near 50%. In fact there are only two cases between 2004 and 2010 where archery harvest exceeded 50% of the total harvest and both of these instances were in 2009 after the introduction of limited permits. It is important to note that these were isolated instances with both previous and subsequent years showing much lower harvest % by archers. One possible explanation for this anomaly could be the random telephone sampling system.

This same argument has been made in regards to the number of “trophy” bulls being harvested by archers. While it is impossible to define trophy quality of elk due to the differing opinions of what a trophy is in the eyes of each hunter the FWP has tried to break down the harvest unit by unit of bulls six points or better to address this complaint/concern. Of the 22OD only three areas (450,530, and 704) were identified as having a higher harvest of six-point or better bulls in at least 3 of the last 5 years by archers. While HD’s 450 and 530 can easily be categorized as statistical anomalies, by comparing the information provided by FWP regarding 6-point or better harvest to the harvest data posted on their website two interesting findings come to light. First, the harvest statistics provided by FWP and posted on their website proves that the six-point or better harvest in HDs 450, and 530 by archers is much less than 50% and second, that after implementing the limited permits in HD704 while six-point or better harvest by archers has remained near average the harvest of six-point or better bulls by rifle hunter’s has dropped significantly. Further, although HD704 six-point or better harvest is slightly higher during archery season than during general season the 799 bundle overall which includes HD704 has far less than 50% harvest of six-point or better bulls by archers.

The MBA has spent the last 40 years carving out archery hunting opportunities in Montana and that effort has led to the most diverse and liberal archery seasons anywhere. This should not be looked upon as a negative by other sporting groups but rather a model of how to work to build opportunity as the number of people taking advantage of them grows. This is where the efforts of other sportsmen’s groups should be concentrated, with 11 of the 22OD over objective and elk populations growing across the eastern 2/3 of the state there seems to be plenty of chances to increase opportunity for general season hunters where the resource can tolerate it and the EMP mandates it. Any attempts to increase general season opportunity without infringing on archery opportunities with the goal of getting HDs to population objective would more than likely be supported by the MBA.

Overcrowding and Quality of Hunt

The perception of overcrowding and a quality hunt are impossible to quantify on a scale any larger than exactly one hunter. The number of hunters I can tolerate in my area is likely to be different than the number that another hunter can comfortably tolerate. Also where those others are encountered has differing levels of tolerance for each hunter. For example while for some people finding another vehicle at the trailhead may ruin the day, the threshold for another may be another camp nearby or actually running into another hunter in the field. On the other hand there are some who put value in the social aspect of hunting and to them meeting new people and hunting with others is vital to a quality experience. Other factors also have an effect on the perception of a quality hunting experience: proximity to home, number and trophy quality of the elk in the area, ease of access (# and quality of roads), amount of access (to public and private lands), ease of game retrieval, and likelihood of harvest.  Each hunter has to prioritize these among countless other factors to find the opportunity that best fits their expectation of a quality hunt. It would be both unfair and impractical to place the expectation of a quality hunt on the FWP or the Commission.

Addressing the core issues

While there may be real problems that the permits were designed to address they are not working precisely because they were designed to treat the symptoms rather than the disease. To address the issues at their core three things must be considered.

Elk Population Objectives – Current population objectives are too heavily dependent on landowner tolerance rather than biological and environmental tolerances. I do not know a sportsman who believes there are too many elk on public land and until the sportsman feel they have some ownership in the population objectives the FWP will continue to have limited support reaching those objectives.

Non-resident licenses – A common misperception among sportsmen is that there are 17,500 non-resident big game licenses sold in Montana. The most recent data compiled by FWP shows that in 2008 there were a total of 45,812 non-resident big hunters with an alarming total of 147,003 big game permits on the landscape of Montana. With programs like “coming home to hunt” and others the number of non-resident licenses continues to climb. Limited permits in the 22OD simply shift pressure to the western side of the state, compounding the problem of elk herds depleted by wolves.

Expanding Opportunity- It does not take a degree in marketing to know that decreasing the supply and increasing the demand of any commodity, including elk hunting opportunity, is the formula to increase its monetary value. Look at other western states like New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah who have gone down the limited permit road. In these states, long draw odds, short seasons, landowner tags, ranching for wildlife type programs and opportunity being auctioned to the highest bidder are the rule rather than the exception. What has set Montana apart until this point is opportunity, everyone is on the same playing field and opportunity is abundant. It is up to you and you alone to make of that opportunity what you want, not how much money you make or your luck in the draw.

As lengthy as this letter is it merely scratches the surface of the limited permit discussion. That discussion among other Sportsmen’s groups, Landowners, the FWP, and the Commission focused on finding better solutions to the problems in the 22OD is imperative to the future of Montana’s hunting heritage. Ultimately a solution which expands opportunity for everyone while keeping the responsible management of the resource the main priority, is the ultimate goal of the MBA.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Jason Tounsley
President, Montana Bowhunters Association