Guest opinion: Bill to change hunting licenses favors wealthy, out-of-state hunters

Eastern Montana's public lands and private lands opened to hunters are one of the largest attractions to visitors.

BRETT FRENCH, Billings Gazette


Do you hunt with out-of-state family and friends? Do you hunt private lands without an outfitter or guide? Have you been applying for a Missouri River Breaks or Elkhorns bull tag for every single year? If so, you better pay attention.

SB 143, sponsored by Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, would turn the vast majority of non-resident big game licenses offered in Montana to “outfitter sponsored” tags favoring hunters with money who use outfitters. It would also create landowner licenses, and require that one quarter of special permits for coveted hunting districts go to people with no preference points. These are major changes to our license allocations that have no input from Montana hunters.

Montana resident hunters need to know that this bill would result in a dramatic loss of their hunting opportunity. People who come from all over the country to hunt Montana should be concerned they will lose the vast majority of their opportunity for a do-it-yourself hunt.

Outfitter-sponsored licenses for non-resident hunters creates more incentive for outfitters to lease up large ranches for their operations. That means far less land available to Montanans for hunting. Once outfitters know they have a guaranteed license for clients, they will continue to add to the number of acres leased.

Already in Montana, more than 6.5 million acres are leased for exclusive hunting operations. This along with landowner-sponsored licenses to be sold with exclusive access to private lands puts more land off limits to the average Montanan, as well as do-it-yourself non-resident hunters.

As more ranches are leased or access is limited to those willing to pay, the harvest of cow elk on those ranches is limited as outfitted/paying hunters want to harvest bulls. As we’ve learned from past experience, without adequate public access on private lands during the general season, our elk numbers will continue to grow. We can hunt elk for six months of the year and still not get the harvest across the landscape needed for effective management.

This bill will push non-outfitted hunters onto already crowded public lands and reduce opportunity for hunting elk during the general season. It’s the first, major step toward privatization of the public’s wildlife. It would severely hurt hunter-landowner relations, cripple effective wildlife management and ultimately harm our ranching and farming industry by leading to game damage by elk and deer. And it will be followed by measures to limit resident licenses to further this agenda. This is just one of the bills pushed by outfitters this session to tailor opportunity to their operations.

These bills will destroy the Montana in which everyone — regardless of social status — can afford to hunt. It runs counter to Montana’s longstanding tradition of working together, when hunters and landowners form partnerships that benefit both parties. The government should not be in the business of guaranteeing any business customers, especially when it comes to allocating a public resource.

This bill should die, so that Montanans can get back to working on solid ideas that bring people together, not tear them apart to favor one special interest above others. Remember the deer, elk and other big game of the state belong to all of us, not favored special interests. Please contact your legislators and tell them to vote no on SB 143 to keep Montana the last best place for public hunters.

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