Outfitter License Initiative Only the Top of the Mountain

By Beacon Staff

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on 1-161, the ballot measure to eliminate outfitter set-aside big game licenses, and the bigger issue it exposes.)

When I was a kid working for farmers picking rocks out of grain fields for 50 cents per hour, we often joked about the day when we tried to pick up a rock but discovered it was actually the top of a buried mountain. That’s how I view I-161, the proposed ballot initiative to eliminate Montana’s outfitter-sponsored big game licenses. Most of the story is below the surface.

The deadline for gathering has passed, and the Secretary of State office is waiting for signature validations from county election officials, which are due by July 16, so we won’t know until then if I-161 is on the ballot.

Even if the initiative’s backers don’t gather enough valid signatures or regardless of what voters decide next November, that mountain will still be there, lurking just below the surface. Instead of fostering debate about whether outfitters are evil or not, I-161 should force us to discuss how to best reverse a trend that threatens to end public hunting on private land for all except those willing and able to pay for it.

I agree with the initiative’s backers that something drastic needs to be done to stop the pay-to-play movement, but I’m not sure I-161 is the best answer. It would devastate Montana’s outfitting industry, and outfitters are understandably up in arms.

Arguably the most serious problem facing the sport of hunting – and not just in Montana, but everywhere –is rapidly declining public access to private land. The fallout from declining access is steadily declining numbers of hunters, ironically at a time when many game populations have reached all-time highs. Many longtime hunters have abandoned the sport because it’s too hard or too expensive to find a place to hunt, and there isn’t enough recruitment of new hunters to replace those leaving their hunting heritage behind. Today, demographically, those hunters remaining active in the sport are mostly pale, male baby boomers willing and able to pay for access.

Montana and other public land rich states have it better than most, but much of that public land gets mighty crowded on opening day. Also, as big hunters know, elk and other big game tend to scurry right over to the security of closed private land “refuges” after the first few shots are fired.

In states without much public land the problem is already dire. In eastern South Dakota, for example, where I grew up picking rocks and shooting pheasants and a deer every Thanksgiving morning, you could hunt virtually everywhere. Today, try to find any place to hunt without paying the big bucks for the privilege.

I don’t think there is much argument about the future we face. The current trend is leading us to the day when free public hunting on private land will only exist in the history books and only those willing and able to pay for access will hunt on private land. But what’s the core cause of the problem and how can hunters solve it?

(Before you get too excited, yes, I know we’re talking about private land, but I also know wildlife is a public resource, so we’re all stakeholders in this debate.)

Farmers and ranchers close their land to public hunting for a variety of reasons, but one is definitely the chance to make some extra cash leasing out the hunting rights to outfitters, big corporations or private hunting clubs. I find it difficult to fault landowners who have been giving it away for decades for taking the money. They not only have some found money, but as a bonus, they have little or no hassle compared to monitoring and managing public hunting. Leasers usually manage their clients, employees or members and educate them on proper use of private land.

It’s easy to see why I-161 has energy behind it. Ethical hunters who have fostered good relationships with landowners for many years are understandably frustrated when some rich guy who has done nothing to develop such relationships leases their traditional hunting ground and closes it to public hunting.

But I also see the outfitting industry as one of the brightest spots in our less-than-rosy economic future. In Montana and other western states, we’re slowly moving from a mining and agriculture economy to a tourism and recreation economy. Outfitters can be – and should be – a big part of that new economy.

Are outfitters the culprits? Or are they simply small business owners struggling to make a buck? Ditto for big corporations or hunting clubs. Are they to blame for the loss of hunting access?

Or should we hunters take a long look in the mirror? Are we to blame? Not only have some hunters behaved badly, which increases the number of locked gates, but also as a group, have we agreed to pay the price of free public hunting on private land?

Ranching and farming is a tough business and getting tougher, and that comes from a guy who remembers his father losing the farm. I grew up in an agrarian culture and understand it. Today, like it or not, ranchers and farmers need incentives to provide public hunting. A few still cling to the fading tradition of free public hunting, but most have moved onto a new era where money talks.

So what to do? Check out next week’s column for my suggestion for saving public hunting on private land.

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