There hasn’t been much news about I-161, yet, but if supporters manage to get it on the ballot, watch out. This ballot initiative could reverse the trend of declining hunting access to private land, but it also could have a profound impact on Montana’s outfitting and tourism industries.
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) sets aside “not more than an average of” 5,500 nonresident deer and elk and 2,300 deer-only “outfitter sponsored guaranteed licenses” for nonresident hunters. To be eligible for licenses, according to the FWP, nonresident hunters must first contract for the services of a licensed Montana outfitter and “must conduct all sponsored license hunting with the outfitter.”
FWP also sells 11,500 nonresident deer and elk combination licenses to the general public, whether or not hunters hire outfitters, but this is a random drawing. Hence no guarantee of getting a license or getting it in the desired hunting district.
In 1995, the Montana legislature created these special permits to help big game outfitters and nonresidents plan ahead for their fall big game hunts, but some hunters, both resident and nonresidents, see it as giving preference to wealthy out-of-state hunters.
Outfitters have also started leasing hunting rights to large ranches for the exclusive use of their clients, and some hunters believe these set-aside licenses have worsened this pay-to-play trend and the loss of public hunting access to private land.
Now, Montana sportsman have decided to do something about it, and after failed attempts to change the current system administratively and through the legislature, they are taking their cause to the people.
The Montana Secretary of State has approved I-161 and supporters are currently gathering signatures. They need 24,430 qualified signatures from 34 legislative districts before June 18 to place in on the ballot for the November 2 general election.
“This dedicated license for the wealthy nonresident is going away,” predicts Kurt Kephart,” a Billings hunter who is fed up and now spearheading the ballot initiative process. “Just because you have money doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a hunt in Montana.”
Kephart has been emailing signature forms and organizing hunters to help him gather the signatures. He only has a few hundred signatures in the bag so far, but he said he is getting strong support from hunters and is confident I-161 will be on the ballot on November 2.
“Montana sportsman understand it,” Kephart told NewWest.Net, “but the non-hunting public needs a little more understanding on how this affects hunting access here in Montana.”
In addition to doing away with the outfitter-sponsored licenses, I-161 increases nonresident big game license fees to compensate for the loss of income. FWP uses most of the revenue from the outfitter-sponsored licenses to fund the department’s Block Management Program, a hunter access project that pays landowners to leave land open to public hunting. Currently, FWP has about 8 million acres in the Block Management.
“It (I-161) brings our fee for combination deer and elk license up to the level of Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming,” Kephart explained. “We’ve been losing about $2 million per year if we’d kept up with these states.”
Kephart said I-161 will result in a net gain for the FWP revenue of $2.2 million per year, which would be split between block management ($700,000) and habitat improvement and acquisition ($1.5 million).
FWP did a fiscal note on I-161, which verifies Kephart’s financial projections, but FWP has no official opinion on this–or any–ballot measure. “We’re prohibited from providing an opinion on initiatives once they’ve been approved by the Secretary of State,” FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim told NewWest.Net.
One basic premise of I-161 is that, without the guaranteed licenses, outfitters won’t be able to justify leasing large tracts of private land and these private ranches will once again become available for public hunting.
That’s an assumption the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association (MOGA) strongly disputes.
Mac Minard, MOGA Executive Director told NewWest.Net he agrees with problem, declining public hunting access, but not with Kephart’s solution.
All I-161 would do, Minard said, would be remove much-needed stability that the outfitter-sponsored licenses give to the industry. Losing these special licenses, he said, would be a big blow to many outfitters and seriously hurt the tourism industry in Montana.
If I-161 passed, outfitters might still keep their leases and go back to how it was before they had guaranteed licenses, Minard noted, and even if they let the leases go, landowners might not open their land to public hunting.
Ranchers close their land to public hunting for a reason, he explained, often because they’re fed up with bad behavior by hunters or tired of the hassle of monitoring hunting. Leasing to an outfitter or private hunting club makes life easier for landowners.
Minard said that outfitters have between 2 and 3 million acres under lease in Montana, but private individuals and clubs have about as much land under lease. If outfitters gave up a lease, some landowners would simply lease to a private hunting club.
Minard also believes the FWP fiscal note on I-161 is “flawed” because it’s based on the assumption that all nonresident deer and elk licenses will sell at the higher prices. He recounted a recent experience in Idaho where the state raised nonresident license fees expecting to increase revenue, but actually suffered a steep decline because nonresidents didn’t buy at the higher price.
Minard and Kephart obviously see the issue differently, but they agree on one point. If I-161 gets on the ballot, the outfitting industry will strongly oppose it and the issue will be white-hot controversial, especially during this fall’s big game season.