I doubt there is anything that will generate a discussion quicker than the long-standing Montana love triangle of sportsmen, landowners and outfitters. There is deep, devoted passion among all three entities and civil debates often turn quickly to heated arguments with each side digging in. Social media has taken the discourse to levels unimaginable.
A couple of weeks ago the president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, Tom Puchlerz, wrote an op-ed piece regarding Senate Bill 143. This, along with a nationwide social media campaign, has caused quite a stir. Advocating for your position is always honorable, but you must state your case with truth and facts, and this piece has little of either. Having been involved with this legislation from the beginning, we would like to offer fact-based reality to the discussion.
The Puchlerz hit piece was breathtaking in its misrepresentations, lack of factual basis, or even reference to actual proposed language. Let’s use the actual language of the proposal as a baseline on what SB143 will do and what it addresses:
•SB 143 does not create any additional non-resident licenses. There are 17,000 elk/deer combination licenses, referred to as “B10” licenses, and 6,600 deer only, “B11” licenses. This level was established in 1975 and does not change in SB 143.
•SB ,143 “would turn the vast majority of non-resident big game licenses offered into outfitter-sponsored tags … ” This bill does not create a new “outfitter only” sponsored license available only to outfitted clients.
•SB 143 does not create a new “landowner license.” Since 1987 there have been 2,000 landowner-sponsored deer licenses available to non-resident hunters who can be sponsored by a landowner. They are required to hunt only on that property. These tags have no relation to outfitters, and they are allocated out of the 6,600 total non-resident deer-only tags. Historically, only about 50% of these tags are actually used by landowners. The balance goes back into the available deer tags. This does not change in SB 143.
•SB 143 does not change in any way the drawing formula for limited entry tags for deer, elk or any other species for that matter. Pulcherz claims regarding this are a blatant falsehood — this subject is not remotely part of the proposal. The preference point system non-residents can currently use to improve odds of drawing a B10 or B11 license remains unchanged. Limited entry tags for coveted deer, elk and the big three — moose, sheep and goat — remain unchanged.
•SB 143 does not affect resident hunters in any way. Pulcherz’s claim that “Montana resident hunters need to know that this bill would result in a dramatic loss of their hunting opportunity” is another blatant falsehood, and a pathetic attempt to create a wedge issue among residents. This proposal has no negative implications for the resident hunter. Indeed, it adds approximately $1.4 million annually to Fish, Wildlife and Parks coffers to fund access programs such as Block Management and Public Land Access Leases through the PAL Act.
•SB 143 does not create incentives for commercial outfitter leases of private lands. Pulcherz’s claim that “Outfitter-sponsored licenses for non-resident hunters creates more incentive for outfitters to lease up large ranches for their operations” really gets to his primary issue with this bill. It has been the rub for at least 30 years now, and it is a philosophical divide that no one has been able to bridge. We have this modern-era conundrum which has been exceedingly difficult to bridge — public wildlife/habitat/access and private property rights. In many areas of the state, private land has become a haven for wildlife, and landowners are weary of paying the pasture bill and in many cases are simply not willing, for a myriad of reasons unrelated to SB 143, to provide access to anyone for any reason or for any price.
This is where Pulcherz and the MWF are flat out wrong — they are preaching from an old book with discredited data. Simpy put, landowners do not need outfitters. There is only one element that creates incentive for landowners to consider some kind of fee structure to hunt on their property. And that is a hunter who is willing to exchange something of value for the privilege to hunt that property. Increasingly these arrangements are between hunters and landowners alone resulting in exclusive leases. It is not popular to point out, but it is again factual that the highest growth in these exclusive agreements is between resident hunters and landowners.
Aldo Leopold stated many years ago, “Conservation will ultimately boil down to rewarding the private landowner who conserves the public interest.” Pulcherz and his followers don’t want to talk about this, and instead seek to provide red-herring arguments against outfitters to redirect the real discussion. Notwithstanding those efforts, the fact is that there are many hunters, resident and non-resident alike, who are willing to reward private landowners. They can and do proceed in these private arrangements without outfitters at accelerated rates annually in Montana. Sportsmen are quickly becoming the leaders in providing incentive to lease private land.
So what does SB 143 do? SB 143 provides stability to the outfitting industry which is made up of small and family-owned businesses which are cornerstone in supporting rural economies in this state. It does this by allowing those non-resident hunters who will be using an outfitter to apply for and purchase their license between Jan. 1 and March 1 each year, first come, first served. These licenses would come out of the total number of non-resident licenses available, just as they do now. The total allowable would be capped at 45%. Since these are not a separate pool of licenses restricted only to outfitted clients, all remaining licenses after the March 1 deadline then become available to the Do-It-Yourself non-resident. Anyone receiving the early license would be restricted to hunt with an outfitter.
Why is this change needed? Because no one can do business where success or failure is determined by lottery. There is no other segment of commerce that after securing a customer, spins the wheel to see whether that customer can actually buy its product or service. The opposition to outfitting often enjoys stating that any preference on licences “guarantees outfitters a client.” There is no shred of truth in that, and they know it. Outfitters work hard to provide a great service and gain patronage like every other business owner.
What do outfitters do for this state? A recent independent study conducted by the Institute for Tourism & Recreation out of the University of Montana found that in expenditures by out-of-state visitors, guided outfitting (fishing and hunting) was fourth in total dollars spent, behind food, fuel and lodging. People don’t come to Montana to eat, sleep and buy gas. They come to recreate, and guided tourism is an economic powerhouse that penetrates the state.
The seasonal economic pulse is tremendous, but tends to favor the popular destinations leaving much of rural Montana out of that windfall. Hunting brings non-resident dollars to nearly every area of the state. That same ITR study also found that the outfitted hunter leaves more than five times more dollars in the state than the DIY hunter. Through outfitting businesses, this “new money” is distributed to a wide range of businesses and suppliers, and it is spent all year long. Outfitting businesses also hire employees who use that money to attend school and add to the economy.
The outfitted hunter is on the landscape for a week. The contribution they leave per day of hunting is enormous. In his opinion piece, Puchlerz states that SB 143 “will be followed by measures to limit resident licenses.” This is yet another blatant falsehood, formulated exclusively to create wedges in our communities. Outfitters have no concern whatsoever with the number of resident hunters and never have. What we are asking is, that of the total non-resident hunters who will visit this state each year, should we not support local, resident-owned businesses by giving a measure of preference to those who will be leaving a substantially higher contribution to our own rural economy?
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This opinion piece was written by 7 Lazy P Outfitting LLC’s Dusty and Danelle Crary and family of Choteau; the Circle 8/A Lazy H Outfitting’s Sally and Al Haas and Joe Haas and family of Choteau; Dropstone Outfitting’s Maggie Carr and Yve Bardwell of Choteau; Deep Canyon Guest Ranch’s Chuck and Sharon Blixrud of Choteau; and Montana Safaris’ Colter Heckman of Vaughn.