Ballot initiative raises concerns with local outfitters

  A ballot initiative set to eliminate “guaranteed” big game licenses for outfitters is drawing the ire of those in the outfitter and guide industry.  They say it will compound existing issues between hunters, landowners and outfitters.

Calling the initiative “vindictive,” former executive director of Montana Outfitters and Guide and longtime lobbyist for the group, Jean Johnson, says I-161 will throw out much of the work the Private Lands Public Wildlife Council has established in the past 15 years between the three groups.
“This initiative process is not the venue for settling these kinds of largely social issues,” Johnson said. “This doesn’t go to wildlife numbers, this goes to who gets to access private land.”
Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks currently averages issuing about 5,500 elk deer combo licenses and about 2,300 deer combo licenses each year for outfitters in a five-year period. Non-resident hunters who can afford to pay extra money to hire an outfitter are guaranteed a hunting license for the season. 
While other non-resident hunters, who pay about $400, must place their luck on the state’s hunt lottery with about a 60 percent chance that their names will be drawn allowing them to hunt in the state.
I-161 would place those 7,300 “guaranteed” licenses into the pool for all non-resident hunters to draw from, according to initiative sponsor Kurt Kephart.
Although I-161 would not likely eliminate the outfitter business, it would give outfitters another hurdle to jump through, necessitating a reliance on those clients whose names were drawn each year, rather than the assurance they now have with guaranteed licenses.
A little over 24,000 signatures are needed to add I-161 to the Nov. 2 ballot, where voters would vote up or down on the measure.
I-161 would also increase the fees for nonresident big game combo licenses by 43 percent and the fees for nonresident deer combo licenses by 61 percent.  
A substantial increase Johnson says may likely put Montana in legal hot water. Pointing to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Baldwin vs. Fish and Game of Montana case, Johnson said the Court ruled FWP had the right to set higher fees for nonresident hunters. But she noted that was when the cost for nonresidents was 7.5 times higher than for residents. The hike increase proposed in I-161 would mean nonresidents would pay up to 44.8 times higher fees than residents.
Johnson also points to Idaho where a 17 percent increase in nonresident hunting fees resulted in a substantial drop in out-of-state hunters. She says out-of-state hunters get the feeling that “you’re sticking it to the nonresident” and opt to hunt elsewhere.
“The assumption is that all of these licenses will sell … and you’ll have all of this much money, but that’s an invalid assumption,” Johnson said.
But Kephart says his “grassroots” efforts to eliminate guaranteed licenses used by outfitters is about breaking “an unethical hold” the outfitter industry has over FWP, referring to the 70 percent funding FWP’s block management program receives through the outfitting industry. 
FWP’s block management program has been credited with opening up large tracts of private lands to hunters, by offering landowners financial compensation.
“Fish and Game, must by law, manage our wildlife for us – which they haven’t been doing for years – because the outfitter sponsored licenses gives the outfitting industry a direct hold on Fish, Wildlife and Parks,” Kephart said.
The increases proposed in I-161 are to offset revenue that would be lost through the elimination of the “guaranteed” licenses.
By throwing the 7,300 “guaranteed” licenses into the nonresident lottery, Kephart says it will eliminate a state program that secures customers for one industry - something he says doesn’t happen in any other business.
“The outfitting industry now has the tools to lock out the public and they have had for 15 years,” Kephart said. 
But Johnson says landowners resent efforts that dictate their management decisions.
“The bottom line stops with the landowner,” Johnson said. “The landowner makes his own management decisions as to the use of his property.” 
Local outfitters Craig Schell and Rod Paschke point to the benefits their industry offers and how I-161 may negatively affect more than just outfitters.
“It brings a lot of money into Terry,” said Craig Schell of the industry he has been a part of since 1999. Schell points to the money his clients spend at local gift shops, bars, diners and gas stations. He says the money he spends to lease landowner’s grounds benefits the local economy as well. 
Paschke points to the service outfitters provide to landowners, allowing an assurance that their property and cattle will be treated appropriately.
“Hunting season can be a real pain for landowners. As a matter of fact, I know a lot of landowners (where) it’s their least favorite time of year,” Paschke said.
If guaranteed licenses are eliminated both outfitters agree the staunch restrictions they are held to now will be done away with as well. Outfitters will no longer be limited in the number of hunters they guide, the amount of land they lease and regulations requiring them to guide out-of-state hunters. 
“And people complain about overcrowding on public ground now, it’s going to get worse. I guarantee it.” Paschke said of the affects of the passage of I-161.
It’s a “terribly wrong” belief that I-161 will open up more private land, Paschke said.
Open land for hunter access is already being achieved, according to Johnson, who points to FWP’s block management program that in large part is due to the outfitting business.
“He’s rocking a boat that doesn’t need to be rocked,” Johnson said.
But Kephart, who points to a common thread shared by many resident hunters, has a differing vantage point.  “There isn’t anybody here, that’s a resident that hasn’t lost a number of places that they use to be able to hunt, that they no longer can hunt either because it’s leased by an outfitter or the landowner has turned into an outfitter.”

Published Jan. 27, 2010
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