Montana hunters

Montana hunters could face higher fees in 2015 if proposals from a study committee are adopted.

BRETT FRENCH/Gazette Staff

No one likes to pay more and get less, except maybe dieters looking for fewer calories in a meal. But that’s the scenario hunters in Montana may be facing in the future.

Proposals drafted by a legislative interim committee would raise license fees for many hunters and anglers in Montana to generate more revenue for state Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The proposals will be presented to the Environmental Quality Council at its meeting March 19 in Helena.

It will be up to the EQC and the FWP director to decide which proposals are advanced to the next Legislature for consideration, following public hearings on the recommendations.

The earliest any license fee increases could be implemented is the 2015 season, but FWP wouldn’t see that boost in its coffers until the 2017 fiscal year. If all of the committee’s proposals were drafted, it could mean an additional $6.25 million for FWP.

FWP now offers 31 free and discounted licenses at an estimated cost to the agency of $4.8 million. In addition to seeking a revenue increase, the department has also cut its budget by $1.2 million.

Some hunters and anglers have spoken in favor of raising license fees, which are below median prices in all categories when compared with fees in 11 nearby states, according to a study by EQC’s staff. But Montanans also have an average household income of only $45,400, which is $7,600 below the U.S. average and $11,100 less than neighboring Wyoming, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Here are some of the proposals the committee has recommended to raise revenue. A full breakdown can be found online.

— Create a base hunting license that would be a prerequisite to purchasing individual species tags and would replace the current archery stamp. The price of $10 for residents and $15 for nonresidents would include the Hunting Access Enhancement Fee and would result in a net price increase of $8 for residents and $5 for nonresidents.

— Increase the age at which seniors are eligible for discounted licenses to age 67. Currently, licenses are discounted at 62 years of age, the youngest among surrounding states.

— Increase nonresident moose, mountain sheep, mountain goat and bison license prices to $1,250 each.

Although the committee acknowledged that many other Montana residents and nonresidents reap the benefits of wildlife management, fishing access sites and wildlife management areas, they agreed it was unlikely that the Legislature would contribute general fund dollars to FWP’s bank account.

— FWP should use a four-year funding model for reviewing its expenditures and revenues, instead of the current 10-year model, in order to determine the need for making license revenue recommendations to the Legislature. This would make the agency more flexible in responding to income changes as well as lessen the impacts of any future license fee increases.

The reason hunters could be getting less for their license dollars is that big game populations have been on a downhill slide in Montana the past few years. Next hunting season, Montana hunters will be limited to taking buck deer only in an attempt to boost deer populations that have dropped because of disease and a severe winter followed by drought.

Moose populations across Montana have been declining for years, and FWP biologists are trying to find out why. Antelope have yet to rebound from a devastating die-off in 2010-11 during record snowfall that killed thousands, while disease also picked off hundreds. The only big game that seems to be thriving is elk, but they often concentrate on private lands during the hunting season, meaning less opportunity for many public hunters.

Such loss of opportunity was reflected in fewer hunters passing through many of FWP’s game check stations last fall. Hunter numbers were down 9 percent below those seen in 2012, and 35 percent below numbers seen in 2010 in northeastern Montana’s Region 6. Despite more hunters passing through the Columbus check station last year — an increase of 8 percent over the long-term average and the most since 2004 — only 30 percent of hunters had game. Whether those hunters were seeing less game or just being more choosey is unknown.

Despite the many difficulties, FWP’s license sales have been trending up the last two years, based on the sales of conservation licenses, which are required for every license purchase. Fishing license sales are increasing the most. Does that mean some hunters and anglers buy licenses even though they may not fish or hunt? And if so, will they keep buying if the prices increase?

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