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.

Montana Initiative – Good for Hunters?

If you’ve wondered why we often have initiated measures on the ballot, there’s a history lesson involved. Initiatives are a souvenir of what historians call the “Progressive Era,” when there was a populist revolt against state legislatures, which many felt were in the pockets of the vested interests. Many states, primarily west of the Mississippi, enacted various forms of initiatives and referendums, in which people can petition to put measures on the ballot.

The Montana initiative process requires people to submit ballot proposals to the Secretary of State’s office for analysis and screening. If a proposal passes this legal hurdle the sponsors of the initiative can then collect signatures from citizens, including five percent of registered voters from 34 of Montana’s legislative districts, with a minimum of 24,337 signatures.

As of late February, some 24 measures had been submitted and five have passed through the process far enough so that backers can collect signatures. Three of those initiatives have outdoor implications. I-160 is a measure that would outlaw trapping by private citizens on public lands. I-162 is a private property issue involving the old red-herring question of “government takings.”

Then there’s this week’s topic: I-161, a measure sponsored by Billings resident, Kurt Kephart.

I-161 would abolish the current system where some 5500 non-resident big game hunting licenses are outfitter-sponsored. In other words, a non-resident who wishes to hunt with a Montana outfitter can simply book the package, including a premium priced license. Non-residents who don’t go through an outfitter go through the drawing process for elk and/or deer licenses.

I-161 would abolish outfitter-sponsored licenses, increase the base price for all non-resident big game licenses, and make all non-residents go through the drawing process.

Based on information from Kephart’s website, benefits from such a change include making things fair for all non-residents interested in hunting big game in Montana. “Demand democracy instead of plutocracy!” is how it’s stated. In another section, Kephart states, “Access to our wildlife has diminished in large part due to the outfitting industry’s selfish interests…the outfitting industry is ready, willing, and able to use private property rights and pro business banter to rob many Montana families of their cherished family values – time spent hunting and fishing together.”

Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters & Guides Association, in a phone interview last week, acknowledges that the initiative has some basic appeal, with vague suggestions that if outfitter-sponsored hunting licenses were abolished, we would somehow end up with better access to private lands for hunting.

Minard believes, however, that the opposite would happen, pointing out that Montana has some 8.5 million acres of private land enrolled in the Block Management Program, a program that pays landowners to open their property to hunters. Initially, the Block Management program was totally financed by revenues from outfitter-sponsored hunting licenses. Currently hunting license access fees also help, but outfitter-sponsored licenses still finance 80 percent of the Block Management program, and the increased general non-resident licenses wouldn’t necessarily produce similar revenues for Block Management. Minard points to Idaho, which increased license fees, but projected revenue increases didn’t materialize.

Minard also points out the importance of the outfitting industry as a part of Montana’s tourist industry, generating $167 million yearly for Montana small businesses, plus $11.6 million in state and local taxes, and a $51 million payroll.
Another aspect is that the initiative would repeal requirements contained in the outfitter-sponsored license laws that require outfitters to accompany their clients at all times, providing direction and advice, and ensuring clients hunt in a lawful and ethical manner.

What’s my opinion? I have a general mindset that we’d be better off if most of those initiatives never made it to the ballot, and should be defeated if they do. The initiatives of past years that banned cyanide heap leach gold mining practices, and banned canned hunts on game farms were notable exceptions.

I’d suggest check for yourself. For arguments for I-161, check www.publicwildlife.org. For arguments against, check www.stop161.org. The biggest factor in my mind is the threat to Block Management. 8.5 million acres of hunting access is too much to risk.