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New Law Reignites Debate Over Money’s Role In Hunting Opportunities

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A last-minute addition to a Montana fish and wildlife bill signed into law on Friday reinvigorated a long-running debate over the role of money in hunting in Montana.

House Bill 637 is sprawling; it affects game wardens, block management, hunting with dogs and taking turkeys, along with other fish and wildlife management issues in the state. But during the last day of the legislative session, it was amended to include language that boosts the odds of nonresidents with outfitters getting deer and elk permits in Montana.

Nonresidents who want to hunt in Montana enter a lottery system. Under the old model, everybody has the same odds of drawing a permit, whether or not they’re hunting with an outfitter. Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, explains the process.

“Imagine going in to get a haircut and you got a good barber, but before you can walk in the door and spend your money, you gotta roll the dice and figure out if you can even go.” 

Minard supports the amendment to do away with the equal odds for residents and nonresidents drawing a tag to hunt in Montana.

“So that’s an oddball way to run something that is so important to the economy of the state of Montana.”

According to analysis by the Bureau of Business and Economic Research, visitors to the state taking part in outfitting or guiding stay longer and spend five times more money than other out-of-staters. In 2017, nonresidents engaged in guided or outfitted hunting, fishing and other activities spent more than $790 million in Montana. 

The amendment doesn’t change how many tags are handed out in the state, but it guarantees licenses to any nonresident hunting with an outfitter who applied in 2021 only. Looking to future years, it ups the odds for out-of-staters with outfitters, but doesn’t guarantee them licenses. It gives them the opportunity to purchase twice the so-called “preference points” for the lottery system as nonresidents hunting on their own, thus increasing their chances at drawing a permit. Proceeds to the state will go to land access and habitat programs.

“We’re excited about that,” Minard says. “We think that’s a good thing, that’s a win-win-win for all people involved.”

Minard said Montana residents likely won’t see any change in hunting opportunity, and the legislation provides much-needed stability to the outfitting industry. Especially this year, he said a post-COVID surge in out-of-state hunting applications spelled particularly dismal odds of outfitters securing clients.

“Outfitted businesses are Montanans. They are Montana businesses. And I place Montana business over the interests of a non-resident visitor.” 

Kit Fischer, director of wildlife programs for the National Wildlife Federation, said the amendment that’s now changed the odds of who draws a hunting license was rushed and received no public input.

“It was just kind of a heartbreaker.”

He said the do-it-yourself hunting community in Montana and across the country organized in opposition to a previous iteration of the bill that died in committee earlier in the session. 

“It was just a complete giveaway to the outfitting community.”

The issue isn’t new in Montana; a 2010 ballot initiative eliminated guaranteed licenses for outfitters in the state.

John Sullivan, chair of the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, said Montana has a long tradition that wildlife in the state is owned by everyone, regardless of wealth or status. This bill changes that.

“We should not be creating a system that encourages monetization and privatization of our wildlife, that favors the haves over the have-nots.” 

Sullivan said whether or not the bill changes Montanans’ hunting experience on the ground, it upends the values that underlie hunting in the state, and also picks winners and losers in the outdoor industry.

“People should be angry that it was just shoved down their throats.”

Gov. Greg Gianforte signed the bill Friday. In an emailed release, Brooke Stroyke, spokesperson for the governor, said the amendment to HB637 supports small businesses that drive the state’s outdoor economy.

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