Wildlife

While elk can drive land values higher and are eagerly sought by hunters, their presence can cause landowners distress. Nonprofits are seeking ways to incentivize landowners to provide wildlife habitat in new ways.

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Two conservation groups have partnered with a Paradise Valley ranching family to help set aside nearly 500 acres as an elk winter range.

The construction of 1.25 miles of fence to separate elk and cattle was undertaken as proof of concept for what’s being called an “elk occupancy agreement.”

“Our goal for this project is to conserve high value habitat and healthy native forage for Greater Yellowstone’s wildlife while supporting local livelihoods,” said Siva Sundaresan in a statement.

Sundaresan is the conservation director for Bozeman-based Greater Yellowstone Coalition. The nonprofit environmental group first tested the idea in Jackson, Wyoming, about two years ago, said Scott Christensen, executive director of the group.

There, the GYC pays a rancher to keep cattle off a portion of his land that is used by elk in the winter, lessening the risk of disease transmission between wildlife and livestock and reducing elk depredation on haystacks. The first year worked so well the group renewed the agreement for five more years.

“GYC conceptualized these types of agreements as an innovative approach to keeping elk healthy and livelihoods in place,” said Christi Weber, director of communications and marketing for the nonprofit.

Mill Creek

The east side of the Paradise Valley, south of Livingston, is characterized by a quick rise from the valley to the Absaroka Mountains. 

Partners

In the Paradise Valley, the GYC partnered with another Bozeman-based nonprofit, the Property and Environment Research Center. PERC’s goal is to incentivize landowners to value wildlife while lessening government intervention.

“Nobody wants to see these lands get fragmented and developed,” said Brian Yablonski, PERC’s CEO.

Elk occupancy agreements provide an alternative for landowners who may be wary of conservation easements, which requires conservation in perpetuity, PERC noted in a press release.

Paradise Valley rancher Zane Petrich went to the nonprofit groups this past spring with the idea of building the fence after hearing they were looking for projects.

“It was neat to see PERC and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition step up with no strings attached,” he said. “I look forward to seeing what else they can do.”

One nice part about it, Petrich added, is the groups put the “ball in the landowner’s court,” encouraging them to be innovative about enhancing habitat on their own land.

Elk

The occupancy agreement comes as growing elk populations and their impact on private landowners has created a challenge for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. As the state’s game management agency, FWP’s main way to control wildlife populations is through public hunting.

In the past decade, however, elk have become year-round residents on private lands where public hunting access is often limited or nonexistent. FWP has created programs meant to incentivize landowners to provide access, like the Block Management Program, but elk will often flee those lands during the hunting season to properties where they are safe.

PERC has outlined a game plan for the state that would change the current dynamic, allowing FWP to issue licenses to landowners. They could then monetize and transfer the licenses to hunters for use only on the landowner’s property.

The group also advocates allowing nonresident landowners into the existing lottery under FWP’s Landowner Preference Program. For those who own at least 160 acres used primarily for agriculture, the program allots 15% of the permit quota for each hunting district into a lottery. If drawn, the permit can be used by a family member or employee.

The nonprofit sees these routes, used in other western states, as one answer to Montana’s elk overpopulation problem.

Concerns

However, some Montana hunters see the monetizing of wildlife with transferable tags as the death blow to the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, where the wildlife is a public resource – not a private one. Making such a change, these hunters contend, will only benefit the rich and those who own large tracts of land.

“As far as transferable tags for elk, we remain strongly opposed to this concept and do not believe that PERC actually did much sleuthing on public sentiments regarding these programs; rather they simply issued a report that supported their long-standing policy of supporting privatizing wildlife,” said Marcus Strange, of the Montana Wildlife Federation.

In some respects, elk have already been monetized by real-estate companies that advertise properties based on their wildlife populations or the property’s exclusive access to adjoining public lands.

“Elk is king for sure right now,” said Andy Rahn, of Montana Land Source, which tracks listings and sales.

He noted when he lists properties on his website, real-estate agents often send him photos of elk when he wants pictures of the property. The joke among agents is that trout and elk are the prime drivers of the Montana real-estate market, he said.

The Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission has taken fire regarding the elk controversy this year as it has approved several agreements providing landowners free either-sex elk tags in return for some public access. After being altered by the last Legislature to loosen the definition of who is a member of the public, the permits have become increasingly popular.

Herd bull

A herd bull rounds up cows during the fall breeding season. Elk can cause damage to private land by tearing down fences, raiding haystacks and feeding in fields.

Agreement

Under the Paradise Valley elk occupancy agreement mentioned earlier, a 1.25 mile-long fence was paid for by a donor to keep cattle off the winter range and the Petriches sprayed to kill cheatgrass to enhance native forage.

“As a small operating private landowner, unless you have big money burning a hole in your pocket, it would never get done,” Petrich said.

The donor who paid for the work had approached PERC offering to subsidize a project.

“There’s a conservation market out there,” Yablonski said. “It was relatively easy to do.”

Neighboring landowners will also benefit, Petrich said, as the chances for spreading brucellosis from elk to cattle could be lessened while also giving elk an alternative to raiding fields and haystacks for food.

“Hopefully elk will spend more time there in the winter,” he said. “It’s not the ultimate answer, but if everyone does a project it will help.”

The agreement will also benefit the Petriches’ outfitting business, since the set aside land has the potential to attract or keep elk, as well as other wildlife, on the landscape.

“When my grandpa bought this place there were eight head of elk, now there are a thousand,” Petrich said.

Elk occupancy agreement

Pressures

In addition to providing wildlife habitat, the goal of such programs is to keep ranching families on the land so they don’t sell their property that may lead to subdivision or development.

“In the Paradise Valley, the increasing pressure of population growth and development threatens the habitat integrity of large, private working lands of the region that provide essential winter range for a variety of wildlife including elk,” PERC said.

A similar goal is endorsed by researcher Arthur Middleton, who with his studies has advanced the public’s understanding of the vast landscapes needed for migrating animals like elk and deer in Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park. Middleton is featured in a PERC video promoting these sentiments called “Elk in Paradise.”

Middleton said in the film, “So we have to be in conversation with these landowners, learning what works for them, what their concerns are, what their hopes and fears are, and then building solutions around those conversations.”

This article originally ran on billingsgazette.com.

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