Hunters Need to Get in the Game

By Beacon Staff

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

Last week, I tried to outline the gravity of the situation hunters face – the dramatic loss of public access to private land and consequently, a steady decline in numbers of hunters. I left you with the question, what should we do about it? Here’s my answer.

To me, the best solution is building up hunter-funded public access programs such as Montana’s Block Management Program. This program has its critics, and they have valid points, but conceptually, this seems like the answer – giving landowners incentives, financial and otherwise, to open land to public hunting. There are other incentives besides money, such as property tax breaks and special licenses for the families and friends, but 30 years in the business world taught me that cold, hard cash is always the best incentive.

The problem is, of course, corporations, city hunting clubs and outfitters can and do pay more than Block Management offers and frequently snap up the choicest properties. So, I see only one realistic solution. Hunters must get aggressive and compete, financially, for these leases. Our best defense is our best offense.

Outfitters might have a coronary over the thought of a state agency or conservation group competing with them for leases, but something major must be done. What we’re doing now is obviously falling far short of what needs to be done to save public hunting on private land.

I realize my idea conflicts with the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation and worsens the distasteful trend of commercializing wildlife, a public resource, but it’s time for a reality check. The sport of hunting is on the ropes. One major reason is the difficulty of finding a free place to hunt. Even some hunters who can afford to pay won’t because they consider it repulsive.

Do we want to see the day when the only people who hunt are those willing and able to pay for it? Right now, that’s the future we face.

Given that reality, I’ve decided to drop the bomb. We hunters need get in the game instead of sitting on the bench watching the big boys play.

I say, substantially increase license fees, and not just the normal inflation-based increases, but doubling or tripling resident license fees, along with substantial raises in nonresident fees, and earmarking all new revenue for hunter-access programs. Doing such would, much to the chagrin of current leaseholders but much to the delight of landowners, essentially create a bidding war between public hunters and private leasers.

Hunters have always paid their way. With license fees and excise taxes, they have funded wildlife conservation. We wouldn’t have huntable game populations without hunters paying the bills, so now we have to do the same to preserve a place to hunt.

I’m talking about real money here. In Montana, for example, resident hunters pay $20 to hunt elk – a major league bargain, in my opinion – and less than they pay for a box of cartridges or for gas every time they go hunting. Most hunters spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars annually, so an extra 20 bucks seems like a minuscule price to pay for access to quality hunting.

Ditto for antelope, deer, turkey and all other permits. Hunters often spend more on breakfast than they would to double the cost of their license.

Montana, for example, sells 17,000 nonresident and about 130,000 resident elk licenses. Adding $20 to each would raise $3 million annually to buy or lease hunting access. Doing something similar with all nonresident and resident licenses, and we’d have something north of $10 million annually. In Montana, that would more than double the amount of money in Block Management.

I suppose some hunters will say they can’t afford it, and these are the same folks who go to the Legislature to say a $2 increase in deer tags makes it impossible to feed their families. To this, I say, hello, you can hardly get a cup of coffee for two bucks. We’re talking about the future of hunting here.

In Montana, Block Management has an annual budget of $6.5 million, mostly from the sale of outfitter-sponsored license targeted by I-161. This money goes to landowners in exchange for keeping the gates open to about 8 million acres of private land.

Block Management and similar programs in other states do more than pay landowners to provide free public hunting. State wildlife agencies also help manage hunters and the wildlife resource on that land, stressing science-based management, such as antlerless-only seasons, to keep populations and habitat healthy. Conversely, outfitters who lease private land almost always emphasize trophy hunting, which can lead to overpopulation and habitat deterioration.

I know agencies and lawmakers hate earmarked money, but I say tough cookies. We, the people paying the extra fees, insist that the money go to the stated purpose. Hunters can’t trust legislatures to resist diverting money to the budget crisis of the day.

How to do it? Again, let’s be real. Most state legislatures aren’t going to pass anything close to what I’m proposing or even put it on the ballot for us. Remember back in the 1990s when Montana hunters tried to get the Legislature to ban game farming and canned hunts? Frustrated after three failures, they went directly to the people with a ballot initiative and passed it. We need to do the same with this issue. Call it something like the Save Hunting Initiative.

And not just for Montana. Let’s do it in every state, even Texas.

So, there’s a wild idea from Wild Bill. If you don’t like it, I can deal with it, as long you offer up a better idea.