Nonresident hunting is a huge business in Montana, accounting for nearly 70 percent of the license dollars the state receives every year. That means outfitting and guiding are big businesses for individuals and communities -- which is a major reason why there's an ongoing feud over state decisions to reduce the number of elk bow permits in the Missouri Breaks and other parts of eastern Montana.
The latest shot fired in this multi-year battle was an editorial by Mac Minard, executive director of the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association, that recently appeared in Montana newspapers. In it he claimed that:
- Since 2009, Montana has lost an estimated $16.4 million in spending by elk archery hunters who did not draw a special permit, with $7 million of that loss coming in 2011.
- As a result, some eastern Montana outfitters and communities are struggling to stay afloat.
- There's a biological surplus of elk in the reduced-permit locations.
- The decreases in permit availability are more about access to elk over private land than elk management.
The state and Fish, Wildlife and Parks commissioners have a different perspective. But before getting into that, some background is necessary.
"The proposal to limit archery elk permits started with two complaints from sportsmen. Bowhunters were complaining about crowding ... rifle hunters were complaining that improved archery equipment technology and hunter numbers were resulting in more than a fair share of bull elk being killed by archers."
That was written by FWP commissioner Ron Moody in an April 2011 letter, motivated by a proposed intervention in the permit issue by the state legislature. In it he also wrote:
"Unlimited archery elk permits in the Missouri Breaks Districts created a situation where we simultaneously had too many bowhunters crowding each other and too many elk. Logic would dictate that more elk-hunting permits would result in more elk being harvested. This is not true in Montana hunting districts where public hunting policies and private land policies are at cross purposes."
There he's referring to the fact that a lot of the opportunity to access elk in eastern Montana is on or through private land. So: "Thus an increase in permit numbers can actually result in a decrease in the total number of elk harvested because the incentive to lock-out public hunters from private land becomes more financially rewarding." Reading between the lines, it appears that the commission feels that the former situation of unlimited archery permits in the Breaks and elsewhere resulted in outfitters paying for control of private land, to the detriment of resident hunters. Limiting the number of permits would thus be a possible way to rectify that situation. Minard feels that's untrue.
"The action on the part of the Commission has resulted in probably the worst hunter-landowner relationships we've ever had," he told OutdoorChannel.com. "They could easily have increased the number of rifle permits available because we're talking about districts that are all at or above or the management objective [elk populations].
"They'll say they did it to reduce [bowhunter] crowding, and to provide equity among rifle and archery hunters, and to some extent there's a case made of trying to finesse bull-cow ratios. But behind the scenes it's very clearly a message to private landowners in an attempt to force access onto their property that has backfired."
It should be noted that Minard is a former wildlife biologist who worked for the states of Alaska, Arizona and, for a short time, Montana.
He said, "A critical thing to any sportsman is the loss of hunting opportunity in the face of biological surplus, and of course things like jobs and the economy are very important in Montana like they are in other parts of the country. You put those two things together and it seems like, Why in the world are we doing this?"
Moody and fellow commissioner Shane Colton wrote in a response to Minard's column that "today, after three hunting seasons of experience, most hunters say they are much happier with the new rules.
"But ... commercial hunt merchants [outfitters] who market exclusive private-land access to publicly owned trophy bull elk -- primarily to nonresident customers ... argue that fewer permits for nonresidents mean fewer customers for their business. They want the commission to change the rules to put their profitability first, as the situation was before 2008."
Moody and Colton are against that, but noted that "the complaint of lost sales is valid, and the commission is open to suggestions for how to give relief without also sacrificing the even more legitimate public interests served by the permit rules."
Ron Aasheim, FWP's chief of communications, told OutdoorChannel.com that the FWP has no specific data on the economic impact of the permit changes to eastern Montana towns, but said that revenue "will be reduced if you have fewer hunter-days in that area, certainly. But also some people who didn't go there would go elsewhere in Montana -- because we sold the same number of non-resident licenses in Montana this year as in the past. So those hunters are going somewhere."
That is precisely what Minard and the folks he represents say is happening, and they're worried about a chronic loss of customers coming to eastern Montana.
To Minard's claim of a biological surplus, Aasheim agreed that it's accurate, but not in a way that matters to many hunters. "There are more cow elk than the objectives call for in some districts, but that's not the issue," he said. "What people want is permits to hunt big bulls. This is about bull elk [and] we don't have an excess of bulls down there."
So factoring in the differences in opinion or perspective, we are left with these facts:
- Fewer hunters are coming to eastern Montana.
- As a result, outfitters in that third of the state are suffering.
- Private ownership of large amounts of eastern Montana land makes managing mobile elk herds more difficult than it otherwise would be.
- This will continue to be big issue in Montana until the economic effects of it are addressed.