MOGA bill would reduce permits for resident hunters

A group of outfitters is trying to wrest a few more game permits from the hands of Montana hunters.

On Tuesday, the Montana Outfitters and Guides Association defended its bill, House Bill 568, to ensure that nonresident hunters always get 10 percent of the permits to hunt elk, antelope, mountain lions and eventually black bears. Rep. Kerry White, R-Bozeman, carried HB568, saying it would bring in additional money for Fish, Wildlife & Parks, because nonresident licenses cost more than those of residents. But White’s justification belies the fact that it takes permits away from residents.

The number of resident and nonresident hunters who enter drawings for game permits varies each year, depending on the hunting district and species. But according to a 1979 law, nonresidents can’t receive any more than 10 percent of the permits for each species in each district.

FWP licensing chief Hank Worsech explained the drawing process this way. Say there are 100 elk permits for a particular district. FWP randomly selects hunters’ names, and as soon as they draw 10 nonresidents, no more nonresidents can get a permit in that district. However, if after 100 names are drawn, fewer than 10 nonresidents are selected – say seven – only seven nonresidents get permits. In this way, Montana residents get a little priority. But Worsech said in many districts, nonresidents end up getting 10 percent of the permits anyway.

But MOGA wants to remove the priority that resident hunters get and give nonresidents 10 percent of each species and sex in each district. So in the previous example, three residents would lose their permits so 10 nonresidents would get theirs.

Based upon the 2016 drawing results, that means last fall, residents would have lost 393 elk cow permits, 122 antelope permits and 157 female antelope permits, Worsech said. But nonresidents would have added about $147,000 to FWP’s coffers. But all that could change in next year’s drawing.

MOGA lobbyist Jeanne Johnson said this was the bill she’s wanted to bring for the past 13 legislative sessions. She explained that the 1979 law was passed after some nonresident hunters behaved badly in 1978, causing legislators to pass a bill to clamp down on the number of nonresidents.

“That’s 38 years ago – I think it’s time to let that go,” Johnson said. “The nonresident supports that (FWP) agency across the street – 70 percent of their budget. That’s a lot of money. But now we want to honor those people and say, ‘You get 10 percent.’”

MOGA executive director Mac Minard also claimed to be advocating for nonresident hunters because otherwise they’ll go hunt in other states. Both Minard and Republican committee members said the nonresidents would spend additional money on food, hotels and transportation, but couldn’t say how much more that would add to Montana’s economy, especially since resident hunters also pay for food, hotels and transportation unless they’re hunting near home.

Other than the fact that state Legislatures don’t usually pass laws to favor nonresidents – they usually look after their own citizens – Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock said HB568 was not appropriate because it takes season-setting duties out of the hands of the FWP commissioners. Montana Bowhunters spokesman Jerry Davis agreed with Gevock.

Every two years, FWP commissioners approve the numbers of individuals and species that can be hunted and trapped in each district and sometimes need to vary the proportion of hunters due to circumstances such as accounting for promised landowner permits.

“We oppose season setting in statute. If we go down that road, we’ll be asked to set all seasons in statute. That would make managing wildlife virtually impossible,” Gevock said. “Twenty percent of our membership is nonresidents, so I disagree that MOGA is the only organization looking out for nonresident hunters. We welcome nonresident hunters and want opportunity for them, but it already exists. This wouldn’t benefit Montana resident hunters.”

It would benefit MOGA members because nonresident hunters tend to hire guides. About a third of nonresident hunters use guides, Minard said, but that could increase if more nonresident hunters could get permits. Minard didn’t provide many other details about outfitters’ operations other than to say that about 400 outfitters belong to MOGA although about 100 appear to be inactive.

MOGA has already pushed for other bills that would favor outfitters, including SB264, which would require outfitters to provide only minimal information to the Board of Outfitters. MOGA also forced angling representative Robin Cunningham off the Board of Outfitters by opposing his nomination. Cunningham advocated for transparency and outfitter reporting of resources they use.

Kerry tried to justify HB568 by saying increasing the number of nonresident hunters would keep resident-license costs down. But that’s not necessarily so.

FWP has to calculate its budget for every four years and sets license and permit fees based on past license sales and the department’s expenses. FWP will have to do that again in 2018 for the next four years and fees may or may not change based upon a complicated calculus of how all the fees add together, whether federal money has increased or decrease and whether they cover any number of expenses. And Montana’s resident hunters still pay some of the lowest fees in the nation.

But ultimately, it may come down to lost resident hunting opportunity.

“We oppose the 10 percent becoming a floor rather than a ceiling (for nonresident numbers),” Gevock said.

Introduced at the end of February, HB568 has already been amended but hasn't passed the committee or the House yet, after which it would still need to be passed by the Senate.