A bill heard at the Montana Legislature Tuesday reignited a long-running debate over the role of money in hunting access in Montana.
Republican Jason Ellsworth from Hamilton wants Montana to set aside a percentage of nonresident deer and elk hunting licenses for out-of-staters hunting with outfitters. Ellsworth said the state’s current lottery system for nonresident hunters means outfitter businesses rely too much on chance for clients each year.
"You know, I think we owe it to these small businesses to sit here and say, ‘Yeah, we wanna make sure you thrive and survive,'" Ellsworth said.
He said that outfitted hunters spend about five times as much in the state as non-resident do-it-yourselfers, fueling local economies throughout Montana. A study from the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research showed that hunting outfitters generated more than $50 million in revenue in 2017.
About 45 people — mostly guides and outfitters, along with the Montana Stockgrowers Association and United Property Owners of Montana — testified in favor of Senate Bill 143. Many said it was especially necessary given the economic downturn that came with COVID.
"Our rural communities across this state need this economic stimulus now more than ever," said Chuck Rein, president of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association.
Roughly 15 people testified against the bill, including nonresident do-it-yourself hunters, the Montana Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers as well as other hunting and conservation groups.
They said Montanans have already spoken on this issue: A 2010 ballot initiative, passed with about 54% of the vote, got rid of outfitter-sponsored licenses in the state.
John Sullivan with Backcountry Hunters and Anglers said the bill could create a hunting system that privileges nonresidents who have money over those without it.
"This bill would put us back on the path to privatizing and monetizing our publicly-owned wildlife resources," Sullivan said.
Opponents of the bill said the legislation amounts to a subsidy to the outfitting industry, runs contrary to free market principles and could decrease access for resident hunters as landowners cater to high-paying outfitters.
"This is troubling," said public lands advocate Andrew Posewitz.
Sen. Jason Ellsworth, sponsor of the bill, said the license revenue boost brought by this bill would go mostly to access initiatives like the Block Management program and the purchase of conservation easements.
He said that before its next hearing the bill will be amended to lower the number of nonresident hunting licenses going to outfitter-sponsored hunters. The first draft of the bill calls for 60%.