I Say Vote ‘No" on I-161

The cock pheasant flushed from the edge of a patch of cattails and took to the air. I swung my shotgun along the pheasant’s flight path and pulled the trigger. The pheasant kept on flying for parts unknown.

I apologized to Flicka, my Labrador retriever. She’d been working the cover and finding the birds. She figures I should do my job and give her a pheasant to retrieve. Sometimes it works that way. This time I fell down on the job. Fortunately, Flicka is forgiving—as long as we’re looking for more birds she’s willing to overlook my lapses.

We were hunting on a farm along the Rocky Mountain Front. It’s a place I’ve hunted many tines and I treasure the memories I’ve stored up from many walks across the fields, as well as the three different Labs who have shared these walks. Also treasured are lively discussions over the kitchen table with the elderly couple that made their home on the farm for so many years. They’re gone now, too, but the bond of friendship continues with their adult children who continue to reside there.

Like many good hunting properties around Montana, the hunting isn’t free, though in this case the price of hunting is some good conversation.

I treasure this and some other farms and ranches where I have hunted over the years. At a time when many hunters are struggling to find a place to hunt it’s good to know there are places where I’m welcome to hunt. In fact, they often call to find out when I’m coming.

Nevertheless I still mourn the loss of some other farms and ranches where I used to hunt. One of those, a farm along the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana, was a pheasant paradise. It was often tough hunting because of impenetrable brush and thorns in spots, but it seldom failed to produce pheasants.

Several years ago the owners elected to start charging their hunters a trespass fee. That’s when I stopped going there. Before taking that step they also considered leasing the hunting rights to a local outfitter, but they ultimately decided to charge a trespass fee so as to maintain direct control of the hunting.

Losing the privilege of hunting on that farm still hurts though I don’t blame them for making changes in their policies. Making a living on a farm or ranch is a tough proposition, what with the high costs of production and a razor thin profit margin. If there has been a lot of turnover in farm and ranch ownership the last couple decades, the cold, harsh realities of agricultural economics are usually at the root of change. It’s no wonder many operators have resorted to charging trespass fees or leasing hunting rights.

That’s also at the heart of an initiative on the Montana ballot this election season. Initiative No 161 (I-161) is one of the few initiatives to pass the hurdles to get on the ballot. Two weeks ago, Rick Foote, the editor of the Weekly, wrote a detailed analysis of the measure and its pros and cons. I won’t go into that detail other than to briefly summarize the provisions of the measure. In short, I-161 would end a program of outfitter-sponsored licenses for elk and deer. Under this program non-residents pay a premium price for a big game hunting license when they book a hunt with a Montana outfitter

If the measure passes, all non-residents wanting to hunt in Montana would have to enter the general drawing for elk or deer license and pay higher fees, as well.

Backers of the measure assert that abolition of the outfitter-sponsored license will reverse that trend of landowners leasing hunting rights to outfitters and, thus, improve hunting opportunities for Montana residents.

Personally, I’m not convinced that I-161’s backers have made their case. I doubt that this measure, if passed, would roll things back to those good old days. As far as I’m concerned it’s agricultural economics that forces farmers and ranchers to seek additional revenue by leasing hunting rights and I-161 doesn’t change that.

I’m voting no.

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