Montana’s Opportunity to Hunt and Fish is on the Line

With a new administration and Legislature taking the helm, sportsmen and women are asking what might be in store

By Thomas Baumeister

Hunters and anglers pay attention to their surroundings as their pursuits demand it. In Montana, this includes the political landscape.

With a new administration and Legislature taking the helm, sportsmen and women are asking what might be in store for Montana’s cherished outdoor way of life. Posts are spiking in online forums, sporting coalitions are convening on Zoom, and op-eds are filling daily papers – all speculating what might lie ahead. There’s a shared concern that things may not be as good as they have been. What is really at stake here? Why are so many hunters and anglers concerned?

Let’s start with how we manage and conserve fish and wildlife in Montana. As citizens, we intuitively understand that some things in life deserve to be protected for the benefit of everyone. In Montana, these “things” include fish and wildlife.

To this end, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) was established. And for more than a century, we’ve done a great job managing fish and wildlife to best meet the interests of current and future generations. The species hunters and anglers pursue and care most about are all at or near record highs and the sale of hunting and fishing licenses parallels this trend. Let’s face it, if you want to live the life of a carefree hunter or angler, there is no better place in the world than Montana.

Many view FWP as holding sweeping powers and unfettered autonomy. But this is not the case. The specific directives that matter most to hunters and anglers such as opportunities, seasons, and bag limits are actually not up to FWP to decide. This responsibility falls to elected and appointed officials in their respective offices as governor (who also appoints the FWP director), the Legislature, the FWP Commission, and other executive bodies. This reality is why people are concerned about what lies ahead for our outdoor lifestyle.

For years, our fish and wildlife have been managed as a public trust resource on behalf of and for the people of Montana. We collectively held firm to the ideal that the opportunity to hunt and fish must be available to the average person no matter what their social or economic status might be: one only needs a modestly priced license and some leisure time to participate.

Overall, this utilitarian approach to fish and wildlife management of the greatest good for the greatest number has served the public well. But it stands on shaky ground, especially when one considers the prospect of commercialization and privatization of fish and wildlife. Whereas public trust management seeks the greatest good for the greatest number, private resource management does not. The danger of commercialization and privatization is a shift away from the average hunter and angler toward hunting and angling for certain segments of the society only. For example, officials may decide to grant hunting licenses to landowners to use how they please including selling them to the highest bidder.

The interests of Montana’s hunters and anglers as a whole have been in excellent hands with recent the FWP commission, especially with the outgoing commission under the leadership of Shane Colton. It is obvious that the five-member board understands and embodies the essence of being a steward of the “public trust in fish and wildlife.”

When you hear commissioners ask questions such as, “What will this change to a hunting season mean to the average hunter?” or “How can we ensure that the public has more opportunities to recreate?” or “How can we provide more access opportunities to anglers?” you witness decision-making based on principles of public trust. Yet, we must not take this way of decision-making for granted as our elected/appointed officials are not required to govern this way. They are under no obligation to follow suit and may opt to abide by a different set of guiding principles, including commercializing and privatizing Montana’s fish and wildlife.

In the coming months, pay close attention to how your opportunity to hunt and fish is managed. Greater opportunities will help Montana, the average hunter and anglers, and our fish and wildlife to thrive. Commercialization and privatization will not. If you witness your opportunities diminishing, hold your elected officials accountable as they make the rules on the things that matter most.

Thomas Baumeister serves on the board of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.