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Benefits for hunting outfitters snuck into FWP bill headed for Gianforte’s desk

At the end of the session, the Legislature passed a bill that had language inserted at the last minute that basically guarantees hunting outfitters more nonresident hunting clients. Other bills carrying the same language died in committee.

On Thursday, House Bill 637 was on its way to the governor’s desk after the House and Senate voted to pass subsequent amendments on mostly party-line votes on the last day of the session.

Sportsmen’s groups including the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Montana Wildlife Federation are telling their members to ask Gov. Greg Gianforte to veto the bill, partly due language added Tuesday that is a handout to hunting outfitters.

It would give thousands of big game licenses – elk and deer – to nonresidents who agree to hunt with an outfitter, thus exceeding the limit of 17,000 nonresidents allowed to hunt in Montana. It also gives extra preference points for future license drawings to any nonresident who hunts with an outfitter.

Both actions encourage nonresidents to hunt preferentially with outfitters.

These are similar to changes that sportsmen opposed in Senate Bill 143 and House Bill 505. Dozens of sportsmen spoke in opposition to both bills and both were eventually tabled in committee.

On Wednesday, the Montana Wildlife Federation issued a statement saying, “Public hunters made it clear this session that everybody should have an equal opportunity to hunt in Montana, and this provision is just another attempt to put outfitted clients at the front of the line.”

In mid-march, HB 637, sponsored by Seth Berlee, R-Joliet, started as a “clean-up” bill clarifying several definitions and requirements of Fish, Wildlife & Parks regulations, such as who needed nonresident bear and mountain lion licenses, when boats could be used in hunting and reclassifying wolves as furbearers.

Many sportsmen had issues with the bill to begin with, because it did little to preserve Montana’s wildlife resources. For instance, it increased the number of nonresident mountain lion licenses while allowing nonresident large landowners or their guests to hunt lions without a license to use dogs.

Still, the bill flew through the House even though a fiscal note estimated FWP would lose a half-million dollars a year due to fewer nonresidents being required to buy licenses.

The bill was amended in the Senate, adding a section that would increase payments to landowners participating in FWP’s Block Management program.

By the time the Senate sent the amended bill back to the House on April 26, it was getting late in the game. Legislators were already talking about making “Sine die” motions to end the session as the budget got closer to being finished.

After the House voted against the bill as amended, House Speaker Rep. Wylie Galt, R-Martinsdale, sent the bill into a special conference on Monday. When the conference committee returned the bill to the House on Tuesday, the outfitter big game licenses were suddenly part of the bill.

Sen. Pat Flowers, D-Bozeman, tried to call attention to the change.

“This is being introduced on maybe the 2nd to last day of the legislature… Senate Bill 143 got tremendous interest,” Flowers said Tuesday on the Senate Floor. “To add this on as a simple amendment to what was a quote ‘agency clean up bill’ is disingenuous and does a disservice to sportsmen and women who don’t know this is happening.”

The Backcountry Hunters and Anglers had already opposed HB 637 because it allowed hunters to pursue black bears and mountain lions on the same day they purchase their tags, setting up an opportunity for less reputable hunters to shoot first and tag later.

Because wildlife is part of the public trust that FWP should manage for future generations, BHA opposed allowing nonresident landowners to hunt lions and bears on their property without a license.

But the outfitter license giveaway was the last straw for sportsmen, according to a BHA website post.

“Both chambers, in record time, passed 2nd and 3rd readings last night- all within the same day as the bill taking an entirely new form, and all without public comment or a public hearing with public testimony. The NO votes deserve our thanks; the YES votes have some explaining to do,” the post said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.