Within the first two minutes of Tuesday night’s meeting over hunting in the White Gulch area east of Canyon Ferry Reservoir, it became clear that the majority of those in attendance were there to talk about solutions.
The meeting was the latest progression of a saga that began with game wardens responding to large numbers of hunters and elk opening weekend. While most hunters conducted themselves ethically, accounts of some unethical and illegal behavior also surfaced.
Since that story gained statewide attention, deeper discussions developed about often tense landowner and sportsman relations, hunter ethics and private land with public wildlife.
During a hunter meeting at the Glass Slipper earlier this month, hunters shared their frustration with G Bar T Ranch manager Jeff Brozovich and outfitter and state Rep. Kelly Flynn. Brozovich had become confrontational with them and tried to keep elk on the ranch while Flynn and his clients had also displayed questionable ethics, they said.
For his part, Brozovich acknowledged some issues with a small group of hunters but believes his patrolling of the ranch has been blown out of proportion by his critics. Flynn denied any wrongdoing by himself or his employees, and said he promotes ethical hunting and land stewardship.
White Gulch resident Dan Mohn organized Tuesday’s meeting at O’Malley’s. He hoped to bring everyone together to end the finger-pointing and name-calling in favor of working on solutions.
It did not take long after the meeting started before hunters Allen Johansen and Dewey Lyon tore into Flynn, accusing him of a conflict of interest for being an outfitter while chairing the House Fish and Game Committee, and for a disagreement about an elk shot on his property. Johansen exited soon afterward after being told to leave by other attendees. Lyon stayed, but left before the meeting finished.
Warden Sgt. Dave Loewen spoke, and the meeting got back on track.
“We have to give a little to get a little, and this is not about pointing fingers and blaming someone for something that happened this year,” he said.
Large herds of elk, often numbering in the hundreds, move between the mountains and down onto the flats where patches of public land are interspersed with private and block management property. This year, the elk stayed on the flats and in irrigated pivots where hunters found them, with additional reports of low elk numbers in the surrounding mountains bringing more hunters down.
“Elk are a creature of habit and they’re going to do what they’ve always done. We can come up with a plan to redistribute these elk because there’s no reason 800 elk should be standing on a pivot,” Loewen said.
A similar situation in the Canyon Creek area northwest of Helena had been solved with a landowner and sportsmen roundtable discussion, he said.
How best to hunt the elk safely and ethically, coupled with access issues, carried the remainder of the meeting.
Area resident Bill Waldron brought his experience in Colorado as a possible solution. In that area, hunters formed coalitions to police each other, and the same could work east of Canyon Ferry, he said.
“We worked with all the ranchers and established great relationships,” Waldron said. “When it comes to bad-mouthing this guy or you did this or that, that’s kids’ stuff. Hopefully we’re grown adults with heads on our shoulders.”
Waldron’s idea met with a scattering of applause, and others spoke in support of a coalition.
Hunter Randy Raymond has hunted the flats for years, and questioned the push to get elk back into the mountains. Finding a way to police the area, and even some weapons restrictions, could solve many of the issues, he said.
Loewen encouraged hunters who see illegal activity to video or photograph it if possible to help game wardens catch who is breaking the law.
Other potential solutions that attendees supported were early and late season hunts and expanding opportunities for disabled, youth and senior hunters.
Those sorts of regulation changes go through the Fish and Wildlife Commission, but Loewen said he had heard increasing support for the late season idea. Early or late season hunts would only work with the cooperation of all landowners, he said.
Local hunter Joe Steffens, 70, delivered passionate remarks about the area, stating that finding elk takes time and hiking off the road, but his family finds success every year by working hard, he said. Montana residents have it pretty good when it comes to low tag fees, and they often do not appreciate what landowners go through, he said.
Issues with access also became a hot topic.
Many of the elk move back and forth between public and private land -- particularly the 6,000-acre G Bar T Ranch owned by Dave Greytak and managed by Brozovich. The ranch has traditionally allowed few public hunters, but took several this year with plans to boost that number next year, Brozovich said.
Flynn’s ranch also takes a limited number of public hunters -- 85 last season, he said.
Flynn addressed potential legislative solutions to both open more access and curb illegal behavior.
The number of acres in the popular Block Management program has fallen, and an optional stamp specifically for access could raise additional funds, he said. Additional or different block management types that restrict hunter numbers could work to reduce hunter concentration, he said.
Jason Swant of the Prickly Pear Sportsmen’s Association continually hammered his point that wildlife is owned by the public, and that sportsmen have picked up the tab for management for too long.
“Sportsmen shouldn’t have to compete financially to get access to wildlife; sportsmen already feel like we’re carrying a lot of financial burden,” he said.
Wildlife desperately needs resources, and some of those resources should come from the general public that also benefits, Swant said.
Flynn had also earlier considered legislation to increase fines for illegal activity related to hunting, but has since reconsidered in favor of a harsher punishment, he said.
A hunter would lose his or her hunting, fishing and trapping privileges for the remainder of the season and next as punishment for shooting from a vehicle or road on a first offense. Hunter harassment and using vehicles would carry the same punishment on a second offense, Flynn said.
Flynn has been soliciting input from sportsmen’s groups and FWP in shaping the proposals, he said.
“I think it’s fair and cuts both ways -- if my guy’s interfering with a lawful hunt, it’s just as wrong as anyone else,” Flynn said.