February 03, 2021
With hunting seasons winding down across the nation and plenty of new state congressman taking office after the fall elections, right now seems like a logical time to discuss changes to hunting regulations. The Montana State Legislature seems to agree. In the past couple weeks, two different bills surfaced. House Bill 202 and Senate Bill 143 were introduced that look to significantly change Montana hunting opportunities. The former looks to limit individual harvests of certain species while the latter could slash self-guided opportunities for nonresidents hunters.
House Bill 202 was introduced to the Montana House of Representatives by Representative Denley Loge on January 20th. The bill proposes to limit the harvest of certain game species to one per lifetime per hunter. That’s right, Montana is proposing to make harvesting certain game species a literal once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
That may sound alarming at first, but let’s dive into what’s written in the bill. First off, it would only apply to the harvest of grizzly bears, antlered moose, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. If this were to pass, it would mean if you harvest an antlered moose in Montana, you could never hunt for them in the state again. The same would apply to bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Montana does not currently have a grizzly bear season, but the once-in-a-lifetime rule would apply should they open one up in the future.
The goal of the bill, according to Loge, is to allow more people the opportunity to pursue these animals. After all, nearly 35,000 people applied for only 284 bighorn tags in 2019. The total harvest was even lower with 185 sheep actually being taken, so there is certainly a case to be made for the once-in-a-lifetime rule. However, with so few rams being taken every year it’s unclear if the bill will ever improve the odds of drawing a tag. If it does, it will take years before the rule makes an impact. Not to mention the fact that over-the-counter ram tags can already be purchased for 5 different districts in Montana, so hunters have options if they fail to draw a lottery tag.
But what about antlered moose and mountain goats?
Well, more of the same. In 2019 there were 28,000 applications for 348 moose tags and 18,000 applications for 126 goat tags. The biggest difference here is that no over-the-counter tags are available for moose and goat, leaving hunters to rely on the lottery system.
Support or opposition of this bill comes down to the numbers. Eliminating a couple hundred hunters from a drawing of tens of thousands is not likely to have an impact on draw rate. It is also exceedingly rare to draw two lottery tags for a particular species in a short time frame given the sheer number of applications, not to mention the fact that preference points reset once a tag is drawn. Though everyone would love to draw a bighorn sheep tag next year, the numbers just don’t permit it and eliminating a small percent each year won’t change that. The bill seems as though it will only punish those who do harvest the prescribed species while not having a tangible effect on the actual draw rate. For example, if someone harvests a bighorn sheep and wishes to buy an over-the-counter tag to pursue bighorns in one of the five zones that allows it, should we stop them? Success rates in those zones are exceedingly low (3.8% combined in 2019) and tag draw rates for a lottery tag are even lower. This bill may end up losing the state money in lottery applications and in over-the-counter tag sales without really helping anyone out.
Let’s look at the bright side. Should the bill pass, if nothing else, Montana at least has a new state motto: “The Once-in-a-Lifetime State”.
Read Montana House Bill 202 here:
This bill has gone through a committee meeting and is awaiting committee report and a second hearing. Follow Loose Cannon Outdoors on Facebook and @loosecannonoutdoors on Instagram for updates.
DIY Gut Job
News of Montana potentially giving 60% of non-resident tags to outfitters came out last week and had western hunters in a frenzy. Senate Bill 143, introduced by Montana State Senator Jason Ellsworth on January 26th, featured multiple changes to Montana big game licensing, but the major of concern was in section 87-2-511. This section stated that “the department shall offer the Class B-10 and Class B-11 licenses for sale on April 1, with 60% of each of the Class B-10 and Class B-11 licenses reserved for applicants hunting with a licensed outfitter.”
This statement elicits a retching reaction. How could the state take tags from everyday outdoorsmen just to funnel them into the hands of guides for the wealthy elite to use? After all, the vast majority (which may be an understatement) of hunters can’t afford a $10,000 elk hunt annually. While the bill did propose to add an extra 2,000 non-resident combo tags, that’s not enough to make up for the nearly 10,000 tags that DIY nonresident hunters would lose access to. Not to mention the fact that it would just lead to more hunters, more competition, and greater strain on the elk and deer herds.
If you were one of the many outdoorsman frustrated by the introduction of this bill, then we have some updates for you.
A hearing for the bill was held on February 2nd which offered to clear up some issues. At the hearing, a group of supporters, made up of largely Montana outfitters, spoke of the benefits of the bill, claiming it as beneficial for all and stating that even a few tags can make the difference between paying the bills or not. This is a fair statement that gives the opposition pause to think about support for small businesses in this country. Meanwhile, the opponents, a mix of Montana residents, nonresidents, and hunting and outdoor organizations, made their case stating that the bill unfairly favors guide services and wealthy hunters. This is the point of emphasis that many of us outdoorsmen felt needed to be emphasized and the opponents to the bill who spoke at the hearing covered this topic eloquently.
Ultimately, the biggest news came from the bill’s sponsor, Senator Jason Ellsworth. Senator Ellsworth stated that the number of tags reserved for outfitters will not, in fact, be the 60% that was initially written into the bill. He went on to say that the number of tags allotted to guide services will be based on the number of tags used by outfitters in recent years. He eluded to a figure closer to 40-45% for outfitters. He went on to add that 2,000 more nonresident combo licenses will not be added, a reversal from what’s written in the original rendition of the bill. As of now, the total number of nonresident combo licenses will remain the same. These updates will be reflected in the next amendment to the bill.
Although a reduction in the number of tags for outfitters from 60% to 45% is a step in the right direction, there’s still work to be done. Back in 2010, Montana voters passed Initiative 161 which abolished outfitter-sponsored licenses. Now, only a decade later, lawmakers are looking at rolling back the changes made by Initiative 161. In doing so, they’re ignoring the voices of the citizens of Montana who had already made it clear in 2010 that they do not support reserving tags for big game outfitters with the Initiative.
The problems with reserving these tags for outfitters are numerous. First of all, allotting tags for outfitters eliminates the chance for self-guided DIY hunters to draw that tag. This shifts the access to hunting opportunities in the favor of the wealthy. Currently, anyone who enters in the Montana nonresident lottery is likely to draw a tag every year or every other year. If this bill should go into effect then a wealthy outdoorsman will be able to pay for an outfitter tag every year while the average hunter is stuck in a lottery with reduced tags and, in turn, a reduced chance to draw. This dichotomy goes against the very foundation of conservation - the idea that nature should be preserved for all to enjoy.
Another major concern with the bill is the principle of privatizing and monetizing natural resources. Outfitters are wonderful services to help individuals experience the outdoors, and they certainly do their part for conservation. However, allotting this number of tags to commercial endeavors is troublesome. As the Method Man would say, cash rules everything around me. This bill would give outfitters more pull in the political realm and opens the door for increased tag allotments for them in the future. This could lead to a world of trouble as a high priority would be put on trophy management practices which benefit deer and elk herds but often times destroy habitat for non-game species. Variety is key to conservation and heavy focus on the big game “money” animals does not help an ecosystem as a whole. Additionally, outfitters with an increased number of tags will lease more land to hunt which will only serve to further limit access to public hunting grounds. Access is already a problem for many western states and this would only exacerbate the issue.
Now, a resident Montana public land hunter might have a slightly different opinion. In their eyes, allocating more tags to outfitters would lead to less competition on public land as a large portion of tags would be used for guided hunts on private leases. What big game hunter wouldn’t be thrilled with less competition?
Then there’s the money aspect. It’s no secret that many small businesses have struggled through this disease that’s going around (we’re tired of hearing the P word and the C word) and outfitters are no exception. Throw in a summer of raging wildfires and you have the perfect storm to sink outfitting businesses. It’s easy to see why the state government is looking to support their outfitters. Plus, there is a sneaking suspicion that the Montana State Government could be looking to increase tax revenue in coming years to make up for losses from the disease year of 2020. It was stated in the hearing that a guided hunter will bring in 5 times the revenue than a non-guided hunter will for state so it’s logical that more outfitter tags would bring in more money to the state. This is all purely speculation and Senator Ellsworth did state that the number of tags reserved for outfitters will be based on the number used by outfitters in previous years so this could be off base, but it’s fun to speculate.
The bottom line here is that we need to keep hunting public. The fear of reserving tags for guided hunts comes out of concern for the common man. Hunting should not be a rich man’s endeavor, it should be every man’s endeavor. This bill opens up the possibility of exclusion based on income. The current lottery system does not play favorites and neither should the government.
Read Senate Bill 143 here:
Senate Bill 143 is awaiting revision prior to further hearings. Follow us on Facebook at Loose Cannon Outdoors and on Instagram @LooseCannonOutdoors to stay up to date on Senate Bill 143.
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