Montana Senate Bill 143: The good, bad, and ugly possibilities

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Montana is a state where hunting dreams are made. The rugged beauty of the landscape and the plethora of trophy game animals make it the number-one destination for hunters in the lower 48. Hunting, then, is an essential part of Montana’s culture and one of the biggest components of the state’s economy. Every year, out-of-state hunters apply for tags, dumping thousands of dollars into the state’s lottery system. Some hunters apply for a tag and after drawing go on a DIY hunt, spending money on equipment, hotel rooms, restaurants, and land usage fees. Others (who can afford it) go whole hog and hire an outfitter. Some of these hunters do this after they win a tag, but most of them apply for an outfitter-sponsored tag that they have a better chance of getting. By doing this they have a better chance of success in the field, while also helping to support private business and landowners. It’s a system that has been in place for years. However, a bill recently introduced to the Montana State Senate has many of Montana’s hunting factions in an uproar.

Montana Senate Bill 143 will set aside a portion of non-resident deer and elk tags for outfitter use only. Currently, thousands of small businesses rely on Montana’s outfitting-based industry drawing in out-of-state hunters, who, aside from using outfitters, can afford to spend big bucks on everything from car rentals to taxidermists. All of this is at the whim of the lottery-based system. If hunters don’t draw tags, the outfitters and these other small businesses don’t get paid. “If I book six hunters and only four draw tags, two of those spots remain empty,” says Montana outfitter and SB 143 advocate Eric Strader. “That’s money out of my pocket, out of my family’s pocket.”

At the moment, about 60 percent of out-of-state hunters who apply for tags don’t go through outfitters, limiting availability for outfitter clients to draw. If SB-143 passes, this would change to about 40 percent of the out-of-state deer and elk tags being set aside in their own limited outfitter pool, as well as raising the price for these tags during an early bird window. Essentially, the bill would help to guarantee that outfitter clients have tags, providing outfitters with more stability. The bill is estimated to generate more than $1.84 million dollars in additional revenue for the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Department, who are planning on using the money to develop access to blocked public lands through public access to land agreements and block management access programs. Still, while this bill may be a boon to the outfitting industry, not all members of the hunting community are happy about it.

While SB-143 would help to guarantee tags for those who can afford outfitters, non-residents who have been dreaming about Montana for years but can’t afford an outfitter will find it much more difficult to get a tag. What’s more, many out-of-state hunters who have been coming to Montana to hunt for years, establishing their own hunting traditions, may also be out of luck. “My father comes from Michigan to hunt with me here and has for over a decade,” says Montana resident Christine Gobrogge. “It took us years to figure out the public lands around here, and just last year he got his first elk. Hunting together is our father-daughter time. If he can’t get a tag, what happens to that time?” Ms. Gobrogge is not alone in her concern, as many Montana residents enjoy utilizing the hunting season with their out-of-state friends and relatives.

Small businesses outside of the outfitters’ range, such as hotels and restaurants near large sections of national forest, could also take a hit without the non-resident, DIY hunting crowd. There are also many Montana resident hunters who fear the measure will lead to reduced unpaid private hunting opportunities, along with reduced access to block management acres, by giving outfitters incentive to lease more land. Landowners would also be able to sell landowner tags, which those opposing the bill say will ultimately lead to increased crowding on public lands. Although many supporters of the bill say that these concerns are being exaggerated, they are not without merit.

SB-143 continues to work its way toward the senate floor, heralded by both apprehension and anticipation. It has drawn a distinct line in the sand among the Montana hunting community and has led many to ask what future the bill will bring the state. If SB-143 passes, will it create a boost in the economy and land management that everyone will be able to benefit from? Will it provide outfitters and the small businesses surrounding them with some peace of mind? Or will it eventually mean that the forests, fields, and mountains of the state will only be available for hunting to those who can afford it? Only time will tell.

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