The recent release of a map supposedly representing outfitted lands in Montana has created yet another sore spot between Montana hunters and outfitters.
A few weeks ago, the Montana Board of Outfitters released a map generated by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks showing that the amount of land potentially used by outfitters has almost tripled since a similar map was released four years ago.
The state produced maps of outfitted lands annually up until 2012 using information that outfitters supplied to the Montana Board of Outfitters. The last map produced in 2012 showed outfitted lands extended across almost 7 million acres.
Now, the new map shows outfitters operate on 18.6 million acres or almost a third of the state’s private land. It should be emphasized that these are not just leased acres but any private land that outfitters have permission to operate on.
That increase has Montana hunters riled up because outfitters seem to be shutting down more of the private land that regular hunters have depended on. Plus, landowners who outfit or lease to outfitters often exclude the large number of public hunters that can keep elk numbers down. This has contributed to elk over-population and associated property damage. When these landowners then demand extra damage hunts and shoulder seasons, which has led six months of hunting in Montana, hunters have become angry.
On the other hand, the new map has outfitters upset because they say the map is inaccurate, over-estimating the acres, and they don’t like being on the defensive. They became angry when the map was highlighted in a blog post by Outdoor Life writer Andrew McKean.
“We were presented with this map without any warning,” said Mac Minard, Montana Outfitters and Guides Association executive director. “We support the production of a map like that; we certainly support the reporting of the acreage. But it didn’t jibe. A threefold increase in the last three years? How could that be?”
Minard said there are less than 300 active outfitters in Montana and his membership includes around 200. Of those, 84 percent use some private land, but only 20 percent said they’d increased their outfitted acreage in the past three years. That meant a small number of outfitters made the total acreage jump by millions of acres, which Minard doesn’t buy.
Steve Gallus, Montana Board of Outfitters executive officer, told Minard that problems could have resulted from the FWP mapping program not being able to properly use data from MBO’s new computer program, Minard said. But Minard said MBO should still be able to come up with an accurate number.
“It’s really screwed up,” Minard said. “The sportsmen’s community would like to know where these acreages are theoretically so they could plan their hunts around it. But in reality, all it’s become is a political hammer.”
But outfitters have their own political maneuvering to account for.
During the 2013 Legislature, outfitters and their representatives in the MOGA tried to pass House Bill 274 to reduce much of their reporting requirements. It passed the Legislature but Gov. Steve Bullock promised to veto the bill if the acreage reporting wasn’t reinstated. Bullock said the information was necessary for helping FWP identify land for inclusion in the block management program and for use in trying to work on hunter/landowner issues.
“The collection of current, relevant, and credible data regarding acreages where licensed outfitters are authorized to serve clients and conduct business is in the public interest. This public interest outweighs the relatively small burden presented by the annual reporting requirement,” Bullock wrote in 2013.
Most importantly, the acreage reports provide data for negotiations over contentious subjects such game damage hunts or public access that have come to dominate many a public meeting.
But even though the Legislature agreed to Bullock’s amendment, the Board of Outfitters hasn’t provided the acreage information to the public in the form of a map for the past three years.
The delay has raised hunters’ suspicions to the point that anger boiled over when the recent map finally surfaced.
“They were trying to get out of putting out the map,” said hunter Joe Perry. “In my opinion, it’s been a turf war. The players being FWP, who have been given data that they knew was inaccurate, and the Board of Outfitters, whose position is ‘We provided the information – that’s all we’re required to do.’ There’s no doubt that the map is seriously flawed, but since 2012, sportsmen have been denied that map.”
Following the same process they’ve used for years, FWP GIS technicians identified every 40-acre square of every square-mile section of private land where outfitters had approval to work. A square mile has 640 acres. FWP Landowner Coordinator Alan Charles told Gallus that FWP eliminated any duplicate entries. Then they counted every square and multiplied by 40 acres. So if an outfitter had permission to hunt on only 20 acres, the square would be an over-estimate. But most of the time, outfitters have access to much more land.
But some hunters have observed errors where some of the squares on the map aren’t private land or they know they aren’t leased to outfitters. So all agree the map isn’t reliable.
Minard said he wants the acreages sent to an independent organization for mapping.
“It ought to be outsourced because we don’t trust FWP. And it should not be at the cost of the Board of Outfitters. The Board of Outfitters is a licensing entity and there is no obligation to be producing maps for public consumption as a product of a licensing entity,” Minard said.
Unfortunately for sportsmen, Minard appears to be right. The law amended in 2013 doesn't mention a requirement for a map – it says only that outfitters will report “private land acreage where licensed outfitters are authorized by the landowner to operate, including exclusive arrangements and lease agreements.”
So any requirement for a map may be in the Board of Outfitters rules, and Perry said the MBO is working on a rule package that will further reduce their reporting requirements that will come out for public comment soon.
Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock said he didn’t know if hunters would try to clarify the law to require a map during the next legislature. But he said the map is necessary.
“We need this data to help inform sound wildlife management. The total numbers are needed, but the map is more important - it’s how much land and where it is. It affects our season setting and structure,” Gevock said. “We don’t need statutory changes. If there are flaws, let’s make sure we get good data. Once we get that, we should be able to get this to work.”