Editor's note: This is the second in a series of stories about the four statewide measures on the Nov. 9 ballot.
BILLINGS - Depending on whose argument you accept, Initiative 161 will either help hunters access more private land or gut Montana's hunting outfitter industry.
The debate dates back to at least 1987. That's when outfitters were guaranteed a certain number of nonresident big game and deer combination licenses for their clients. The idea, adopted by the Montana Legislature, was meant to give outfitters some measure of stability in a state where tourism ranks as the second-largest industry behind agriculture.
In the 23 years since, resident hunters have seen the steady closure of private lands. Some of the lockouts are because of slobs - acts of vandalism, trespassing, littering or simply hounding landowners for permission to hunt at all hours of the day and night.
But lands have also been closed to hunters after outfitters leased property for their exclusive use, sometimes blocking roads to public land in the process. Out-of-state hunters and hunting clubs have also leased or bought land for their exclusive use.
The result has been more hunters spread across less land, competing for a finite and moveable resource. In some cases, wildlife leave the heavily hunted lands that are open to the public to hide on less-pressured lands where public access is denied.
Some landowners whose property adjoins these private refuges complain of elk and deer raiding haystacks or eating forage meant for livestock. In some cases, the wildlife have sneaked in at night to avoid hunters before returning to their safe havens, frustrating wildlife managers in their attempts to help affected landowners.
Although Montana has sizeable public land holdings compared to many states, the majority of the state is privately owned. That private property also tends to be the more productive ground from a habitat perspective - more water, trees and grass that attract and hold wildlife. Public lands are often the high mountains or drier badlands - property early settlers didn't claim or abandoned as uneconomical. So it's no wonder that wildlife, and hunters, gravitate to irrigated croplands.
So how would I-161 change this complicated dynamic?
As written, I-161 would remove the 5,500 nonresident big game and deer licenses set aside for outfitters' clients and instead include them in a lottery system used to award licenses to nonresidents who don't hire an outfitter.
Because nonresident license dollars are the funding source for the state's Block Management Program, which pays landowners to open their land to public hunting, the license fees would be increased to expand the program to more lands.
Under the initiative, 25 percent of the revenue from nonresident license sales would be earmarked to improve hunting access. Money from nonresident fees also pays for habitat improvement on publicly accessible lands.
To raise the extra funds for Block Management, I-161 would raise the nonresident big game combination license from $628 to $897, and the nonresident deer combination license fee would climb from $328 to $527.
A total of 17,000 of the big game combination licenses would be sold along with 6,600 deer combination licenses. The fees would be automatically adjusted in the future for inflation.
A fiscal analysis by the state shows that if all of the licenses were sold at the increased fee, an additional $700,000 a year would be raised for hunter access along with an additional $1.5 million for habitat improvement.
Kurt Kephart, a Billings businessman who authored the initiative, has worked for years on a solution. He started by trying to get a bill introduced into the Legislature, then authored other initiatives that he pulled after he said it was too late to educate the public. Initiative 161 is a refinement of those earlier attempts, an effort he believes in so deeply that he took out a second mortgage on his home to help finance the effort.
"We've got to change the law to get them (outfitters and landowners) back to the table to develop a better plan," Kephart said.
Right now, he said, outfitters and landowners have the power and the money to sway the Legislature in their favor. He sees the initiative process as the democratic way for hunters, who are traditionally less organized, to have their voices heard.
The Montana Wildlife Federation, a coalition of state hunting groups, and the Public Land/Water Access Association have backed I-161.
"The system right now favors money," said Chris Marchion, a MWF board member. "The wealthy just buy in. Any time we allocate a hunting opportunity, we should do that democratically."
Marchion said I-161 also puts Block Management funding on a firmer footing.
It hasn't been a smooth process for I-161 to qualify for the ballot. Paid signature gatherers were caught forging some signatures - yet the measure still had enough legitimate backing to qualify for the ballot. Citing the forgeries, the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association has filed suit to have the initiative thrown out. Whether the case will be decided before a vote is taken is unknown. A hearing has been schedule for Oct. 4.
Kephart admitted there were problems with some signature gatherers, but he said that shouldn't - and didn't - disqualify the entire measure.
"Why do the outfitters not want the general public to make a decision?" Kephart asked. "Do they not trust the people of Montana?"
Mac Minard, executive director of MOGA, said that although his group recognizes there is a problem with public access to wildlife in Montana, I-161 only serves to drive a larger wedge between hunters, landowners and outfitters while destabilizing business for roughly 300 licensed hunting outfitters.
"Why can't we incentivize landowners to do the right thing rather than hold a bat up?" Minard said.
He said hunting outfitters' business is already limited by the number of licenses the state allows for nonresidents. Passage of the initiative would require hunting outfitters to overbook in order to ensure that some of their hunters draw a license through the lottery system, he said.
"Then your business model is the luck of the draw," Minard said. "There is a reason they created (the current) system. Before, it was an incredibly uncertain environment in which to operate."
Claims that the current system guarantees clients for outfitters or creates "outfitter welfare" are wrong, he said.
"It's an example of how misunderstood this business is," he said. "Outfitters still have to compete and provide a service."
MOGA has been joined by the National Rifle Association, Safari Club International and the Montana Stockgrowers Association in opposing I-161.
"This thing is a lot more complex than a yes or no on 161," Minard said.
"They don't want to deal with the real issue - that since guaranteed tags came out it's made it harder and harder for Montanans to get access," he said.