Laura Lundquist 

Montana hunters agree on many things, but a bill to give elk tags to nonresident landowners isn’t one of them.

Hunters lined up outside the Senate Fish and Game committee room late last week to testify on both sides of House Bill 635. Rep. Joshua Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, carried HB 635 successfully through the House for the Montana Citizen’s Elk Management Coalition, a diverse group of Montana hunters that came together about a year ago to try to reduce the various struggles over elk. Kassmier gave only a brief description of the bill, leaving the justification to the proponents.

The bill, part of a package of bills developed by the coalition, would create a pool of nonresident landowners owning more than 2,500 acres. They would be eligible to receive nonresident bull elk tags for themselves or a family member.

The tags would come out of the 17,600 tags officially reserved for nonresidents and the landowners would be limited to hunting on their own land so elk herds would have to be present. And if landowners allowed access to other hunters, they would also receive a bonus point toward applying for other permits.

The 14 proponents included an unlikely mix of representatives of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, Montana Wildlife Federation, and the Bozeman-based Property and Environment Research Center, an organization that looks at the environment through the lens of private property rights and free-market incentives.

Chris Marchion of the Anaconda Sportsmen said HB 635 has pitfalls but is a worthwhile effort, and it could be eliminated later if it doesn’t achieve the aims. Those aims include reducing nonresident hunting pressure, adding access and encouraging landowners to care for wildlife and habitat.

Hunter Gerald Martin said resident landowners can get elk tags, so extending that to nonresident landowners could be seen as an investment in wildlife tolerance and less hunting pressure. Elk Management Coalition spokesman Ben Lamb agreed, saying Montana has used landowner preference to recognize contributions to conservation since 1973.

“For 50 years, this has been how Montana has recognized landowner stewardship. What we’re trying to do is reduce pressure on public land, reward landowners who provide good habitat and provide a carrot for access. We don’t know what the final outcome will be, but it’s not going to be zero,” Lamb said. “I can’t stand here and say all of our groups are in support. You’re going to hear from a number of them who have concerns about this bill.”

The committee did hear a number of concerns from the 12 opponents, which included representatives of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Montana Sportsmen’s Alliance, Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, Helena Hunters and Anglers, the Bridger Bowmen, and the Traditional Bowhunters of Montana. Many praised the efforts of the Citizen’s Elk Coalition but said House Bill 635 missed the mark.

“There’s no dancing around the fact that the bill creates special access and privilege to those who are wealthy enough to own big chunks of land in the state. It uses our publicly owned wildlife as a tool to pay them for owning the land, for providing habitat. It just flies in the face of the core wildlife management that we believe in,” said John Sullivan of Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. “What we give up is certain, and what we get in return is very uncertain.”

The core wildlife management cited by many is the North American Model, which requires that wildlife be held in the public trust so everyone has equal opportunity to hunt and fish for their personal benefit, not for sale. Giving tags to wealthy landowners violates the idea of equal opportunity.

Evaro hunter Jock Conynham pointed out that one tag would be awarded for every 2,500 acres, so the bigger the landowner, the more he’s rewarded.

Proponent Mike Mershon said the principle of the bill conflicts with the North American Model of wildlife conservation but it should be seen as a compromise. But Billings sportsman Jake Schwaller disagreed, saying the only one who wins for sure is the landowner.

“There’s a couple different kinds of compromise: There’s the compromise where you give up a little to get a lot back, and there’s the compromise where you give up something and you don’t get much back, but you do it because you want to compromise. That’s what we’re seeing with this one,” Schwaller said.

Regarding the claim that the bill would extend to nonresident landowners what resident landowners receive, Fish, Wildlife & Parks Licensing Bureau Chief Emily Cooper said resident landowners aren’t guaranteed a tag; they are entered into a drawing for a tag.

Steve Platt of Helena Hunters and Anglers said there was no comparison between rich nonresident landowners who often just buy land for investment and resident landowners who often grew up here and are working the land.

“This is a handout to the most elite and privileged people in America. These are not salt-of-the-earth Montana ranchers feeding cattle all winter and calving in a spring blizzard,” Platt said.

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers legislative spokesman Kevin Farron said the tags would do little to reduce nonresident hunting pressure. BHA did a GIS analysis of nonresident landowners in the state that own 2,500 acres or more and found only 213 would likely qualify. Of those, it’s hard to say how many hunt, and those that hunt are already hunting their own property. Even giving out 213 tags does little to diminish the more than 59,000 nonresident hunters who visited Montana last season, Farron said.

“The handout of our wildlife to wealthy nonresidents doesn’t sit well with us, especially since the access component is meaningless. The impact this will have on reducing nonresident hunter crowding on public land will be unnoticeable,” said Bridge Bowmen spokesman Garrett Sereday. “The juice is not worth the squeeze.”

The committee took no action on HB 635.

The committee did, however, vote to take Sen. Brad Molnar’s crossbow bill, SB 298, off the table. It had been tabled on Feb. 23. A few amendments have been proposed, but the final vote was delayed until Tuesday. The bill must be transmitted to the House by April 3.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at