Guest Column

Don’t Turn Montana into a Playground for the Wealthy

Republican lawmakers passed bills to make it easier for wealthy landowners to restrict access to wildlife and harder for working-class Montanans to hunt

By Marilyn Marler

I am an avid outdoorswoman and hunter who is proud of Montana’s legacy of wildlife conservation and fair chase practices. Montana hunters deserved better leadership than they received from the GOP majority in the 2021 Legislature. Republican lawmakers passed bills along party lines that will make it easier for wealthy landowners to restrict access to wildlife and harder for working-class Montanans to hunt.

Montana is the envy of all other states for our abundant wildlife and access to hunting opportunities. We rely on the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, designating wildlife as a public resource and using hunters in partnership with biologists to manage populations for future generations. Participation in Montana’s hunting culture is famously independent of one’s land ownership status or personal wealth. 

Unfortunately, Republicans of the 2021 Legislature introduced bill after bill designed to take resident Montana hunters out of the equation and shift management preferences toward outfitted hunts and increased control by wealthy, large landowners. 

Consider HB 637, which was presented as a simple cleanup bill but included special benefits for non-residents who own over 640 acres and $1 million for farmed pheasants. That’s $1 million that could have been spent on increasing access to public lands or habitat enhancement for wildlife. Most egregiously, HB 637 overturned the will of Montana voters (who trounced I-161 at the ballot box years ago) by increasing the outfitted non-resident licenses at the expense of DIY non-resident hunters. This change was made on nearly the last day of the session, without advance notice or public comment.  

Not that the majority party was interested in public comment. GOP legislators voted for some terrible bills despite thousands of emails, letters, and testimony from hunters. Montana hunters were frequently denigrated by GOP members on the House floor and in committee, along with our existing successful partnership programs like Block Management and Game Damage Hunts. Fortunately, HB 505 and 697 died in process but not for lack of support by Republicans, and they will probably be introduced again next session.

Some large landowners clearly want to save the regular hunting season for selling bull hunts, and then use arbitrary and ineffective shoulder seasons to kill cows. If these terms are unfamiliar to you, here is the straight talk: more options for the wealthy and fewer for working-class Montanans. Block Management and Game Damage Hunts are existing, successful programs that rely on partnerships. We need the current administration to demonstrate support for those collaborative programs instead of undermining them. 

If you are a hunter, please look up how your legislators voted on these bills. Let them know that you oppose their support of anti-Montana hunter bills. Don’t assume the GOP is looking out for our hunting heritage and successful history of wildlife conservation, because they aren’t. 

Marilyn Marler is a Democratic state representative from Missoula. 

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