A package of bills reforming hunting and access programs are advancing through the Legislature — the product of negotiations between outfitters and public hunter groups aimed at finding common ground.
The six bills, first announced at “Elk Camp at the Capitol” early in the session, are endorsed by the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association and Montana Citizens Elk Management Coalition. Each bill passed its respective chamber to meet procedural deadlines and remain viable this session. Now, wildlife committees in both chambers are taking those bills up as lawmakers consider whether all or some make it all the way to the governor’s desk.
In recent years Montana has seen an influx of new residents, as well as increasing demand from nonresidents coming here to recreate outdoors. In terms of hunting, that has increased pressure on public lands and private lands open to the public, leading to concerns of crowding and diminishing success and experiences.
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The six bills this session range from widely supported increases to the popular Block Management program and reducing nonresident doe deer licenses to a bill that has fractured groups on the public hunting side. That legislation would create a nonresident landowner preference pool for hunting licenses.
Still, the consensus built around the package is a remarkable shift from the contentious and sometimes bitter debates of past legislative sessions over elk management and license allocations.
Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, testified before the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks Committee on March 16 in support of Senate Bill 281, the doe license bill carried by Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade. SB 281 passed the Senate on a vote of 49-1 to move to the House.
“It’s a great honor to be a part of a coalition of sporting groups and outfitters that for many years that have not seen eye-to-eye,” Minard told the committee. “Through the direction of legislators, the direction of the governor’s office, the direction maybe of our own family members, it was high time that we got together and figured out something that were incremental steps that led to quality elk management in Montana.”
Support for the bill also included the Montana Wildlife Federation and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, principal members of the elk coalition, and opponents of past bills to provide guaranteed outfitter licenses or transferable licenses for landowners. The bill, which caps the number of nonresident doe licenses that may be purchased by an individual, is good for struggling mule deer and reducing crowding on public lands, representatives for the organizations told the committee.
Other bills have also seen strong support, including Senate Bill 58 from Sen. Steve Hinebauch, R-Wibaux, which doubles the payment cap for landowners who allow public access through Block Management, and House Bill 243 from Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, which institutes mandatory in-person field days for hunter education. A provision of House Bill 2, the Legislature’s main budget bill, will fund a new state access specialist and has been passed by a budget subcommittee and main House Appropriations committee.
Members of the negotiations often cite the efforts to reach consensus as they lobby for the bills before lawmakers. Those endorsements may come with caveats in noting apprehensions, but so far the package has remained intact.
“These bills represent small but important steps forward to rebuild trust between hunters, outfitters and landowners, and just as importantly, to broaden the management toolbox for elk and other species of wildlife,” Kathy Hadley, of the Montana Citizens Elk Management Coalition, said in a statement. “Not every organization gets everything they want with this kind of work, but that’s the nature of collaboration, and we think it sets us up to find more common ground in the future.”
House Bill 596 from Rep. Denley Loge, R-St. Regis, makes reforms to hunting access agreements, commonly called the 454 program for the bill that originally established the program. The bill has seen some disagreement, but support has carried it through the House to the Senate.
At its core, the 454’s provide a landowner a bull elk permit for a difficult-to-draw district in exchange for allowing a certain number of public hunters. But reforms last session drew the ire of some public hunter groups and resulted in a surge in interest from landowners. The changes reduced the public hunters from four to three, and allowed the landowner to select one of those hunters.
Under HB 596, a landowner would have to provide a “like” opportunity to at least one public hunter, meaning that hunter would also get to hunt for a bull. It would also prioritize applications for landowners who provide additional public access beyond the minimum required in the bill.
Kevin Farron with BHA told the Senate Fish and Game Committee last week that the 454 program continues to cause his organization some heartburn, but said he recognized improvements made by the bill and that he supports it.
The bill from the package that has seen the most contention is House Bill 635 from Rep. Josh Kassmier, R-Fort Benton. The bill would allocate 15% of the 17,000 nonresident big game combination licenses for a landowner preference pool. Nonresident landowners would need to own at least 2,500 acres to apply, and the bill also incentivizes public access by allowing an additional bonus point for special permit applications should they enroll in a state access program, such as Block Management.
Both the outfitters, who could potentially see their draw pool for clients decrease, and public hunter groups concerns about providing special privileges to those nonresidents wealthy enough to afford the property, have noted concerns with the bill. But it received enough support from both to be backed as part of the package.
“I can’t say all of our groups are in support, but still the majority of the leadership council and majority of the policy council is in support of this bill,” said Ben Lamb said on behalf of the elk coalition.
Other supporters of the bill praised it for taking an incentive-based approach to landowners and potentially leading to more public access.
BHA is among the groups breaking from the coalition to oppose HB 635. Farron told the Senate committee that “Montana hunters are being asked to plug our noses and hope it reduces crowding,” when analysis by his organization shows only a couple of hundred landowners might even qualify. He believes the bill may be setting a precedent for more guaranteed tags in the process.
Steve Platt with Helena Hunters and Anglers said the bill amounted to a “handout to the most elite and privileged people in America, wealthy enough own a large Montana ranch but do not live here.”
The bill narrowly passed the House 56-42 following the disagreement among hunting groups. It's now moving to the Senate, where a committee has not yet taken action on the bill.
Flowers was asked whether he thinks supporters of the package believed it must pass in its totality.
“My sense is that they recognize each of these bills stand on their own. Their hope is that they pass as a package and they hope that the support they’ve built over the last two months sustains the whole package through the whole process, but I think they’re clear-eyed enough to know that some may pass and some may not,” he said.