The world is a complex, interconnected place. That’s especially true when we start to think about elk, wolves, bears, and the lands that are necessary to sustain abundant wildlife populations and our ability as hunters and anglers to access them. Human nature, on the other hand, is remarkably simple. We look for the easiest answers, usually the ones that fill our preconceived notions of what’s happening

Take elk for example. A recent study published in Ecology magazine shows that early green up on traditional elk migration routes is leading to less calf production in the Clark’s Fork herd of Wyoming. Add a mess of two- and four-legged critters, fragmented habitats and persistent drought into the mix and you can see why elk are having a tough time in some areas.

The study also showed that elk that select to stay in one place rather than migrate are doing much better. Anecdotally, we can see this in Montana. Elk in the central and eastern part of the state that browse on irrigated cropland are exploding, elk in the western part of the state are seeing declines in some areas

In the west fork of the Bitterroot, we all assumed that wolves were the most limiting factor when it came to elk recruitment. Turns out we were all wrong. It’s a complex mix of toothy critters, folks with rifles, and habitat issues. A suite of changes in the west gork is leading to increased numbers of calves, just as a large fire in Idaho may have moved a bunch of elk over into the Treasure State.

It’s never simple and wildlife management is never easy. That’s why we fight for the programs instituted to help ensure wildlife populations remain abundant. Two programs in particular are critical in Montana for habitat conservation and access

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has increased public access to public land, added more public land to the inventory of federal- and state-owned lands and helped provide landowners with the needed tools to keep their spreads from turning into subdivisions. The LWCF has brought us places like Mount Hagen Wildlife Management Area as well as hundreds of fishing access sites across the state

Likewise, Habitat Montana is a similar program but focused at the state level. Run by the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and utilizing hunter license dollars and federal funds, wildlife managers have been able to use Habitat Montana to increase public access to private land through conservation easements as well as purchase remarkable properties like the Marias River WMA.

Together, these two programs help ensure not only abundant access, but abundant wildlife habitat. We don’t get one without the other, and that’s a good thing. Sometimes we get caught up in the fight to maintain access. When that happens, folks who want to erode the bond between hunters & anglers and conservation swoop in to try and pry us from the land.

We’re told to choose between habitat conservation and access. That’s not right, and it’s going backwards from where we’re at now.

As we fix leaks in our rafts, watch the salmonflies start to pop and see the brand new baby elk, moose, and deer down on the river bottoms, it’s important to remember that these programs help ensure a future full of wildlife and our ability to continue to access these vital grounds.

This article originally appeared on Hellgate Hunters & Anglers and is republished here with permission.

Image courtesy Land Tawney

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