Laura Lundquist

Instead of signing a bill that would give elk licenses to nonresidents who own lots of land, the Governor’s Office returned it to the Legislature with amendments. But that hasn’t improved the schism among resident hunters.

On Friday, after a week of consideration, Gov. Greg Gianforte sent House Bill 635 back to the Legislature with two amendments that have further disappointed some hunters.

As originally passed, HB 635, sponsored by Rep. Joshua Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, would set aside up to 15% of nonresident combination deer and elk licenses for purchase by nonresidents who own more than 2,500 contiguous acres that contain elk. One landowner could buy additional licenses for every additional 2,500 acres he owned, up to a limit of five licenses.

The only catch is that landowners would be required to hunt on their own land. If the landowner also participates in a Fish, Wildlife & Parks program allowing public access, they would be eligible for a bonus point to gain another license or permit.

Now, Gianforte’s amendments would make two changes to HB 635, according to the Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

The first and most significant is that all nonresidents owning 2,500 contiguous acres or more would be eligible for three licenses, instead of getting one license for each increment of 2,500 acres.

The second change would add a requirement that landowners have to own their property for at least three years before they would qualify. That was likely an answer to some opponents who claimed HB 635 would encourage rich out-of-staters to buy land to get guaranteed hunting licenses.

The Montana Wildlife Federation backs the amendments as it has backed HB 635 since its introduction, said Marcus Strange, MWF state policy and government relations director.

“They should help distribute more non-residents away from public land and help ensure that only those landowners who have a commitment to Montana are eligible for the preference pool. This new program follows a 50-year tradition of awarding licenses for stewardship, and we’re hopeful the amendments go on,” Strange said in a text Sunday.

A day earlier, Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers sent an email update to its members, voicing the organization’s continuing opposition to HB 635 because the bill does almost nothing to reduce nonresident hunting pressure.

The email said the fact that the governor didn’t just sign the bill indicates that Gianforte understood that it was unpopular with some hunters. But the amendments didn’t do anything to improve the bill’s popularity, the email said, particularly the change providing three licenses for each landowner.

FWP already rewards landowners who enroll in Block Management, a public access program, with one elk/deer license. But that can’t compete with HB 635, which offers three licenses without requiring the landowner to provide any access.

“Setting this precedent in legislative statute is a terrible idea and will inevitably lead to more, not less, tension between hunters and landowners,” the email read. “Just like everything else in this bill, what Montana hunters gain - negligible improvements to hunter crowding - for what we give up - devalued incentives for public access, equitable hunting for all, opening the door for further attacks on the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation - is simply not worth it.”

HB 635 was proposed by part of the Montana Citizen’s Elk Management Coalition as a compromise to reduce the number of nonresidents competing with resident hunters for Montana’s game. By taking some licenses out of the nonresident pool and by requiring landowners who get the licenses to hunt on their own land, proponents claimed it would reduce nonresident pressure in some areas, particularly on public land. In addition, the bonus point was supposed to encourage landowners to allow more hunters on their lands.

The groups supporting HB 635 included the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, Montana Wildlife Federation and some of its regional affiliates, and the Bozeman-based Property and Environment Research Center, a property-rights organization.

But not all of the Elk Management Coalition agreed with HB 635. Several  testified in opposition to the bill, including Montana 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. Compromise is a worthy goal, they said, but HB 635 didn’t qualify as a compromise because resident hunters got little, if anything, from the deal.

Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers did an analysis of Montana landowners and found slightly more than 200 nonresident landowners would qualify to get the licenses. Assuming each got three licenses, that would shave only 639 licenses from the total of 17,600 combination licenses FWP sells to nonresidents. When all nonresident hunting licenses are considered, about 59,000 nonresident hunters invaded the state last year, according to FWP, making 639 even more insignificant.

John Sullivan, Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers board chair, said no amendment could improve a bill like HB 635 unless it required landowners to provide public access. And even though other FWP programs, like Block Management and Montana’s HB454, offer landowners hunting licenses for allowing public access, the landowners are only entered in drawings to receive licenses. They aren’t guaranteed a license, let alone three.

“The whole heartburn around this is we are proposing to reward, to give landowners our publicly-owned wildlife just on their ability to own land. The wildlife that is owned by the citizens should never be used as payment,” Sullivan said. “There are other ways to incentivize folks to participate in elk management besides giving them preferred access to our wildlife.”

HB 635 passed the House on a vote of 56-42 with a dozen Republicans joining with Democrats to oppose the bill. In the Senate, five Republicans joined Democrats in opposition, so the bill passed with a 29-21 vote on March 28.

Since then, 10 hunting groups - including Montana Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, Helena Hunters and Anglers, Montana Sportsmen’s Alliance and three bowhunting groups - signed an April 5 letter asking Gianforte to veto the bill.

The letter said HB 635 had no consensus among hunters but that the groups support the rest of the Elk Management Coalition bills and want to work to improve hunter-landowner relations.

“Respectfully, we ask that you send a clear message to Montanans that you care about our wishes more than the interests of large, out-of-state landowners; please veto this bill. Doing so would allow all the stakeholders present in the Montana Citizen's Elk Management Coalition - including many of the undersigned groups - an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and present a true consensus solution for consideration,” the April 5 letter said.

The amended HB 635 must now pass both the House and Senate again before the end of the session, which will occur sometime this week. Having already passed the Legislature once, sportsmen think it’s likely HB 635 will pass again. The governor would then likely sign it.

Sullivan said sportsmen would then have to wait until the 2025 Legislative session to reverse the damage. But by then, a new bill might appear seeking to reduce the amount of acreage a landowner needed to possess to qualify for three licenses.

“We’re not going to stop fighting until the very end. We would ask the governor to veto the bill entirely. It’s a bad bill,” Sullivan said. “If it goes through, we’ll have to see what happens. But the benefits to owning acreage just increased threefold before it even became law. So the slippery-slope already exists. Once this stuff is in statute, it’s not hard to change the numbers.”

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