Summer in the Flathead means visitors from all over the country and plenty of unfamiliar license plates to check out. But a closer look might reveal some of the strange plates are attached to vehicles driven by local residents.
Montana is known for its colorful array of specialty plates. In 2008, there were already 86 options for drivers to choose from. When the state revamped its basic design to the current blue background with white writing last October, the total number had grown to 105. The latest count puts available sponsored plates at 118, not including 17 collegiate plates benefiting higher education or 17 military options.
There is also an amateur radio operator plate and three antique plates, each with special requirements.
Each time a sponsored plate is purchased, the group it represents – which can range from the Havre Wrestling Club to the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame – gets a donation.
Sponsoring a license plate requires filling out a detailed application for approval with the state and paying $4,000 to reimburse the Department of Corrections for the initial production costs.
While the plates, made available in 2002 through legislation, help fund many organizations, some on the administrative side are more concerned with the challenges presented by the growing assortment.
“It seems every month we get new plates,” Flathead County Department of Motor Vehicle Chief Deputy Jan Leddy said.
The department recently added eight new plates to its authorized license plate anthology: City of Bozeman, Humane Society of Western Montana, Mariah’s Challenge, Montana Family Foundation, Montana Natural History Center, Montana Snowmobile Association, National Ski Patrol Montana Snowbowl and Tough Enough to Wear Pink of Montana.
This list adds to the litany of colorful options at the DMV and makes for plenty confusion, Leddy said.
“Between those and personalized plates, we just can’t keep track of them,” Leddy said.
Each plate has a different added cost, often ranging from $10 to $35, which is tough to keep track of, she said. But her biggest concern is the complaints the DMV gets from law enforcement about the assortment, Leddy said.
“Just like us, they have no idea what they’re looking at,” Leddy said.
According to state Department of Justice spokesperson Kevin O’Brien, each county can choose which plates to stock. If a driver requests a plate not currently stored at the county DMV, the county orders it. And beginning July 1 of this year, there must be an initial 25 sets of a new plate available in a county if a sponsored plate originates from that county, O’Brien said.
With dozens of options to choose from, law enforcement officers admit it can be a challenge figuring out who is from Montana and who is an out-of-state visitor.
“You get some of those that you don’t see often; it’s very hard to distinguish that they’re a Montana plate,” Kalispell Police Department Patrol Lt. Wade Rademacher said.
This can present a problem when a plate number needs to be called in, he said, because often the responding officer needs to get closer than usual to determine the state of origin.
Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Lavin is a personal fan of the plates, outfitting each of his cars with a different set, including those supporting Flathead High School and the University of Montana Grizzlies. Lavin also enjoys this year’s specially designed MHP license plates, created for the patrol’s 75th anniversary.
In a professional capacity, however, Lavin said troopers do have some complaints.
“Some of them are tough to read,” Lavin said. “The newer ones coming out seem to be better. Some of them it’s just tough to see the numbers.”
O’Brien noted that each proposed plate design must receive approval from the highway patrol before it is available. Law enforcement was also behind the readability of the current standard plate.
Lavin said he tempers plate-reading frustrations with understanding the plates’ purpose.
“Knowing that they go to a good cause is kind of a cool thing,” Lavin said.
The most-recognizable sponsored plates in Flathead County are the Glacier National Park plate and the Montana Council of Trout Unlimited, Leddy said.
At the Glacier National Park Fund, the revenue received from the popular blue Glacier Park plates is essential, Merry Lynn Southers said.
Southers, the annual fund and outreach coordinator for GNPF, said the group typically collects about $200,000 a year from the plates. This money is the biggest source for GNPF’s unrestricted funds, which largely go toward projects in the park.
The specialty plates cost an extra $35, of which $20 goes directly to the group, Southers said.
Each year, the park creates a wish list of projects that were not funded federally, Southers said. That list goes before the GNPF board and projects are selected based on funding availability.
“They rely on those grant requests being honored from us,” Southers said. “In the past we’ve been able to award them up to $200,000 or more. It’s a lot of money.”
Last year was slow for donations, Southers said, and the specialty plates kept many projects afloat. GNPF is actively promoting the plates to bring in more money, and anyone who purchases or has purchased plates can get free centennial license plate holders.
Down at the Flathead County DMV, Leddy said she does appreciate the value specialty plates bring to the organizations behind them even if the numbers keep going up.
“We just keep stacking them up and stacking them up,” Leddy said. “We just go with the flow.”
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