HELENA — Montana hunting outfitters turned out in force Tuesday in support of a bill to set aside thousands of non-resident hunting licenses for their clients, arguing their businesses need the certainty to plan ahead and recover from the pandemic.
“Operating by lottery is no way to run a business,” said John Way, an outfitter from Ennis. “It doesn’t promote good operators or bad operators. It promotes lucky clients.”
But opponents said Senate Bill 143 essentially overturns a 2010 initiative passed by Montana voters, unduly favors outfitted hunters, and could lead to more private land being locked up for clients that hire outfitters.
“You’re going to find you’ve created a pool of wealthy non-residents that can afford to hunt every year,” Brad Wolcott told the Senate Fish and Game Committee. “For those who want to hunt with their families, they may have to wait every few years.”
Scores of people lined up, both in person and online, to testify Tuesday on SB143, which, as written, would set aside 60 percent of non-resident big-game hunting licenses in Montana for outfitter clients.
Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, the sponsor of the bill, said he intends to amend the bill so the amount of licenses for outfitter clients would be at the level that outfitted clients have now – about 40 percent to 45 percent.
The bill also creates 2,000 additional non-resident licenses for those who arrange to hunt on land owned by a “resident sponsor.”
Those buying these set-aside licenses would pay an extra $200, generating between $2.4 million and $2.8 million for the state, Ellsworth said.
He said that money would help fund a variety of projects, such as no-cost hunting licenses for disabled veterans, more easements to grant access to public lands, fishery enhancement and expansion of the block-management program, which provides state-managed hunter access to private lands.
Currently, any non-resident buying a hunting license in Montana must enter a lottery.
Ellsworth said since Montana voters passed the initiative abolishing outfitter set-asides and putting all non-residents in the lottery system, the amount of acreage in block management has declined and use of that land by out-of-state hunters has increased.
“Proponents said getting rid of those (set-asides) would increase access to Montana residents,” he said. “That hasn’t happened … What we found out is the lottery system is not working.”
He also said his bill does nothing to change the hunting-license system for Montana residents.
Outfitters from across the state came to Helena Tuesday to speak in favor of the bill, saying it will help stabilize their industry, which brings millions of dollars into the state, and would not affect hunting by in-state residents.
Outfitter Donna McDonald said her clients have to wait until April to find out if they won a license in the lottery, and that she has to overbook every year and then turn away those who don’t get a license.
Outfitters also testified that Montana’s system puts them at a disadvantage, compared to neighboring states that offer outfitted hunts, and said they need some predictability to bounce back from a difficult year during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We’ve had hunters canceling, left and right,” said outfitter Cody Carr. “This will help us climb out of the hole.”
Opponents said the bill is favoring one industry – licensed outfitters – over all others, in the field of hunting.
Some out-of-state hunters said it would make it harder for them to get a license on their own, and that they couldn’t afford to hire an outfitter.
“What I see here, is … you’re taking away opportunities for me and my kids to get a license,” said Virgil Groom of Missouri. “What it’s going to do is give the guides the opportunity to raise their prices.”
Wolcott also said that non-resident hunters who don’t hire outfitters try to avoid places where outfitted clients congregate, and therefore spread their money more widely around the state.