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 For arguments against, check The biggest factor in my mind is the threat to Block Management. 8.5 million acres of hunting access is too much to risk.