Montana sportsmen oppose giving outfitters 10 nonresident tags each

Elk graze on the hillsides north of Missoula. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current file)

Montana’s sportsmen and women have disliked several bills coming through this year’s Legislature. But as the second half of the session kicks off, resident hunters are so opposed to one bill that they’re trying to get the sponsor to pull it before it’s heard.

After House Bill 505 was introduced a few weeks ago, texts and emails immediately began flying as sportsmen realized the effect the bill would have on the Montana’s hunting tradition.

The bill’s first hearing is scheduled for 3 p.m. Tuesday in the House Fish, Wildlife and Parks committee, and on Monday, the Montana Wildlife Federation and several smaller groups sent a letter requesting that the sponsor, Rep. Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, pull the bill before it’s heard.

The groups asked Galt and other large landowners to join with sportsmen’s groups in a more collaborative discussion about elk management.

“It’s clear to us that this bill would fundamentally change elk hunting in Montana through the proposed landowner-sponsored licenses. If the Legislature is not careful, these new licenses will drive a deep, almost irreversible wedge between hunters and landowners,” the letter said. “We fear that proceeding with this bill will only fuel anger among sportsmen and set back our common interest in elk management in Montana.”

The eight letter signatories include the Hellgate Hunters and Anglers, the Anaconda Sportsmens Club and Helena Hunters and Anglers.

HB 505 would give large landowners the right to divvy out 10 nonresident elk tags to whomever they see fit. Hunting organizations point out that this is not only an unfair way to sell nonresident tags and sets up a system prone to corruption, it privatizes a resource – wildlife – that belongs to all Montanans, not just a select few. Landowners who already offer outfitting on their land could advertise the licenses, thereby increasing their profit.

The law takes science out of big game management. The tags apply to cows or bulls so hunters could potentially kill 10 bulls in an area each season. Because the tags are set in law, biologists wouldn’t be allowed to adjust the hunting season, and herds could suffer as bulls are eliminated.

The bill would also award bonus points to hunters who kill cow elk on private lands. This sets up another unfair system, where hunters with access to private land can rack up bonus points that public land hunters can’t.

Sportsmen’s dollars pay for most wildlife management. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks employs biologists and wardens to manage elk, and FWP’s budget is funded primarily from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. No general fund money is used. So sportsmen should have a fair shot at the licenses they apply for, regardless of who they know or how much money they have.

Butte hunter Harold Johns warned against HB 505’s privatization of wildlife.

“Sooner or later, this type of legislative bill will result in total loss of our wildlife and hunting heritage. Make no mistake about it. Greed is the driving force behind HB 505,” Johns wrote in a recent op-ed.

Some point out that the sponsor would benefit from the bill becoming law.

Galt is co-owner of the 71 Ranch, along with Brock Galt, Jocelyn Galt and his parents, Errol and Sharrie Galt. The business partnership owns properties totaling more than 248,000 acres near Martinsdale, Townsend and Ingomar where people can book self-guided hunts.

Since the bill says only that landowners have to have more than 640 contiguous acres, it’s unclear whether each of the 71 Ranch co-owners could sponsor 10 tags. If they can, the 71 Ranch alone could lock up 50 elks tags.

The Montana Legislature Code of Ethics requires legislators concerned with the possibility of a conflict of interest to present the facts to an ethics committee, but any ruling would determine whether the legislator should be allowed to vote on a bill, not carry it.

As he headed back to Helena Monday after the transmittal break, Rep. Tom France, D-Missoula, said the Fish, Wildlife & Parks committee has been receiving a lot of emails from Montanans worried about HB 505.

“Montana has a tradition of managing wildlife in the public trust, which means every license in the state should be open to every citizen or out-of-state resident,” France said.

“The bill is so contrary to how Montanans have said in initiatives, in polls and in other bills how they want their wildlife managed, which is as a public resource where the rich and the famous aren’t treated any differently from everyday Montanans.”

In 2010, Montanans passed an initiative that eliminated outfitter-sponsored tags.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.