Montana is different from other states. For many, two factors — the remarkable amount of open space and abundant wildlife — are key elements that separate where we live from so many other places.
Montana has a strong hunting tradition and has long had the reputation as being a state where hunters, resident and nonresident alike, could gain free access to quality hunting. But as Montana has grown in recent decades, hunting access to private land has gotten more difficult to obtain, for a variety of reasons.
With the opening of big-game season less than a week away, access is a white-hot topic, stoked in part by Initiative 161, a proposal that takes aim at hunting access and the fees that nonresident hunters pay to pursue big game in Big Sky Country.
On its face, the initiative appears to strike a blow against the trend toward leased land and more out-of-state hunters. But closer inspection reveals plenty of questions about the measure and possible unintended consequences.
The initiative has two major components. One would abolish outfitter-sponsored hunting licenses, scrapping a system in place since 1987. Proponents say these licenses drive outfitters to seek exclusive leases with private landowners, allowing only their paying clients to hunt on that land. Backers say all nonresident hunters should obtain licenses through the lottery system currently used by nonresidents who don’t hire outfitters.
There are currently 5,500 outfitter-sponsored licenses available each year, some of which go unsold. The lottery licenses typically sell out. The change would not increase the total number of licenses available to out-of-state hunters.
Opponents, which as you might suspect include the state’s hunting outfitters and some landowner groups, say the guaranteed licenses eliminate a great deal of uncertainty in their business, one they say is an important cog in the state’s larger tourism industry. The change could do serious economic damage to outfitters and jeopardize livelihoods, they say.
The second big component of I-161 would significantly raise nonresident hunting license fees. In one case, the fee would climb from $628 to $897 for a popular nonresident big-game combination license. Money from nonresident licenses currently is used to help fund the successful Block Management program, which pays landowners to allow hunting access. Proponents say the initiative, due to the increased license fees, would provide more money for Block Management and habitat improvement programs.
Opponents say the fee increase could drive away nonresident hunters and actually reduce funding for the Block Management program.
Both sides make valid points in regards to Initiative 161. But in reality, it’s very difficult for voters or anybody else to predict what the actual outcome of the initiative will be. There is no guarantee that scrapping the outfitter-sponsored licenses will increase hunter access to private land. And it’s fair to point out that outfitters are not the only people who lease land in Montana for hunting. Individuals, both from Montana and other states, pay for exclusive hunting privileges and will continue to do so, regardless of the initiative vote.
It’s also fair to note that Montana had a healthy outfitting industry before the licenses were set aside. By any measure, the guaranteed licenses represent a pretty sweet deal (some see it as a direct subsidy) for outfitters, especially when many Montana hunters are required to seek special permits via a lottery to hunt in many areas.
Will increasing nonresident hunting license fees drive away out-of-state hunters? Nobody really knows. Given the uncertain state of the economy, it seems reasonable to expect fewer nonresident hunters, even without any fee increases.
I-161 raises interesting questions about the future course of hunting in Montana. That’s a topic of great interest to many Montanans and one worthy of extensive public study and deliberation. Unfortunately, a voter initiative doesn’t allow for the scrutiny this topic deserves. For that reason, the Independent Record editorial board opposes I-161.