Disgusted with wildlife, Dennis Descheemaeker wished he could fence them all out of his Grass Range-area ranch. That would rid him of the crop losses associated with the animals.
“How much wildlife do we really need?” he said.
Descheemaeker was attending a recent agricultural producer conference in Lewistown sponsored by the American Prairie Reserve. APR is a nonprofit conservation group that's acquiring land in northeastern Montana to create a large wildlife preserve that includes bison. During one of the sessions Descheemaeker decried the number of elk and antelope he feeds annually as they graze his pastures.
“Antelope don’t bring a dime back to me,” he said.
Although Descheemaeker was being dramatic to make his point, Montana law does not allow livestock fencing to be higher than 48 inches. Exceptions are made to exclude wildlife around haystacks.
Descheemaeker is frustrated because if a hunter shoots a pronghorn, the rest of the herd flees his land to a neighbor’s where no hunting is allowed. Eventually the pronghorns filter back onto his ranch. What’s more, he claims the number of hunting licenses issued for his area is too low to ease his pronghorn overpopulation.
The same goes for elk on Descheemaeker's place.
“If we empty our gun they’re 15 miles on top of the mountain,” he said. “My dad says we need a year-round hunting season.”
Montana does have a six-month elk season on some private and public lands in an attempt to reduce their numbers. Although it has worked in certain places where landowners are helpful in providing access, it’s not consistent enough across the landscape to make a dent in overall elk numbers. Plus, that long of a hunting season is stressful for landowners.
“Promoting access is one of the tricky questions,” said Julie Golla, a wildlife biologist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Anaconda. “I work with elk and people and try to manage both.”
In the hunting districts Golla is responsible for overseeing there are 10,000 head of elk, but landowners will only tolerate about 7,000 head. Likewise, across the state elk populations are steadily growing, she said.
“My area has a lot of resident elk herds,” Golla said. “They are subsisting on hay stacks."
Because they are finding food and safety on ag lands, fewer are migrating onto public lands where they used to be hunted. Some are even calving in alfalfa fields, she said.
Thanks to protection from hunters, Golla has one elk herd that’s growing by about 300 head a year. With growth at that rapid pace, Golla said it can quickly become a situation where even higher hunter harvest levels won’t chip away at elk populations.
What happens then? Authorized elk removals by department sharpshooters? Handing out additional elk permits to landowners? Or will diseases that thrive in crowded conditions, like brucellosis or chronic wasting disease, step in to do what hunters cannot — indiscriminately kill big game.
Even where there’s access to elk the animals prove evasive.
Jackie Jensen, whose family ranches north of Winnett, said they are enrolled in the Block Management Program that allows elk hunters access to their private land, but many of the elk are too smart to be shot.
“It’s like Sturgis with guns,” she said, as hunters show up in droves at first light. But the elk are quick students, moving onto a neighbor’s pasture where hunting is not allowed after grazing the Jensens’ fields all night.
“We are actively doing everything we can because we have a massive overpopulation of elk,” Jensen said.
Looking for answers
Lance Johnson, a fourth-generation rancher who leases the PN Ranch from the American Prairie Reserve, said he’s learning to adapt and live with things he didn’t want — that includes a $50,000 annual loss to wildlife using the property, according to his calculations. So he decided to become a big game outfitter.
“It’s a break-even deal,” he said. “It barely offsets what the wildlife is costing me.”
Like Descheemaeker, Johnson’s land is surrounded by other ranches where hunting is not allowed. As a result, he said the elk population is two-times larger than the targets set by FWP. Although the extended elk seasons in the late summer and winter — called shoulder seasons — have helped, he sees landowner incentives as the best way to increase access to elk and boost the harvest of wildlife.
“For almost every rancher money talks,” he said. “If we could add $10,000 to their operation, that might make a difference.”
Zachary Jones, a fifth-generation rancher from the Two Dot area, said there are a variety of advantages to landowners allowing hunting besides direct cash payouts. For example, ranch employees may gain contacts by mixing with hunters from urban areas who will benefit their future employment. Ranch youngsters may make contacts with business folk who could one day provide apprenticeships. There’s also the possibility of reduced dental costs by allowing dentists to hunt and Christmas gifts given as a thank you from hunters, Jones said with a laugh.
“Those are real benefits that manifest far into the future … an economic exchange that can happen,” he said.
He also noted that land with wildlife is significantly more valuable should a rancher or farmer decide to sell a parcel — increasing land values from 50 to 400 percent for property with an amazing elk herd. Conservation easements are another way ranchers can take money out of their operation by making certain landscape concessions without having to sell.
Janna Long, of Wild Sky Beef Co. — an offshoot of APR — said there can also be premiums to cattle operations that meet standards for wildlife friendly practices — up to $74 a head, according to Walker Milhoan of Ranchlogs.
“The focus of this program is wildlife,” Long said. “Ranchers are paid a credit for different species,” a grizzly bear den being the highest.
“I do think that a lot of what we talk to our ranchers about are things they are doing or thinking about, but not being compensated for,” Long added.
The state will soon begin updating its elk management plan with a focus on the new problems of how to oversee herds that continue to expand, said Golla, of FWP.
“People get so passionate about elk,” she said. “It can be difficult for each landowner, let alone trying to do it for a region or the state."
But if elk could be better distributed onto public land, that would go a long way to easing the tension that has built up between some hunters and landowners, she added.
“With everything there’s a balance, and it takes working together,” Johnson said.